Little spider, big news

By Francesca Emms
Portrait photography by Joram Adams
Nature photography by Andrew Simpson

Featured in Capital #63
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A colony of Katipo spiders have been found at Baring Head reserve. It’s big news as the native spiders are vulnerable, declining, and haven’t been found in the Wellington region for some time.

Francesca Emms asked spider finder William Brockelsby about the discovery, and about his unusual pets.

It all began on a very windy Sunday morning, “when I wasn’t really expecting to find anything!” says William. He’d spent the previous night in the old lighthouse buildings at Baring Head with his girlfriend, French for Rabbits front-woman Brooke Singer, and Paula Warren, Friends of Baring Head trustee and “all round champion of the environment.”

William is on the committee of the recently relaunched Wellington branch of the Entomology Society of New Zealand. “We have big plans to grow interest and the study of bugs and other invertebrates across the city.” One of these plans was a small field trip looking for Katipo out at remote, wild, and windy Baring Head reserve.

The Friends of Baring Head have restored the buildings out there, as well as undertaking weed control and planting alongside the Greater Wellington Regional Council. “I have done a few trips out that way for fun, and we had made vague plans to survey the coast for spiders while doing a bit of weeding. We had unconfirmed reports of them being there in the past but we weren’t sure where.”

The three sidled down the steep slopes to reach the southern coast, hoping to get out of the wind a bit, “futilely – when it’s windy there is no escape”. They turned over wood and poked around the dunes, finding many of the introduced spider Steatoda grossa. “A really bad sign as these spiders have replaced Katipo across their range and have been implicated in their decline.” They moved along the beach and found “a nice dry dune with heaps of sand-binding plants above the high-tide line.” And turning over wood there they found their first Katipo, and then a patch of female Katipo along a 20m stretch of the beach. “They seemed to really like the drier driftwood, which must provide some important habitat for them. Apparently they nest in the grass in other sites, but at Baring Head I am yet to see them in the grass there at all.”

They came back with some keen volunteers a couple of months later, and surveyed other areas of the beach for several hours. “We only found Katipo in that same one small stretch of beach as the first time, and heaps of the introduced spider everywhere else. It was pretty neat to find a previously unknown population in the Wellington area. I’ve been told they used to be common out Makara way in the 80s, so who knows whether there are other remnant populations in Wellington. I am keen to try and find out.”

Most weekends find William out with his head-torch and camera, exploring the bush at night. “All kinds of creatures come out at night in New Zealand, and each night is a little bit different. I like to take photos of the things I see and upload them to the website and learn more about what I see each night.” It began as an outlet for his curiosity, but he now has over 2,000 photos from the Wellington region on that site. “Night time is a totally underrated time to go and explore our unique biodiversity, though I’d recommend taking a friend along with you,” he says.

By day William is a librarian, and he is also in the middle of a Master’s thesis looking at the ecology and spread of the native flax weevil on predator-free Mana Island. “Flax weevils are amazing invertebrates that used to be common all over New Zealand before the spread of rats, but very little is known about them as they only come out at night and tend to only survive in alpine areas or on predator-free islands offshore.” A number of weevils were reintroduced to Mana Island in the 90s and are doing so well that they are destroying all flax plants on the island.

Does William bring his work home with him? Not the spiders: “Katipo are protected under the Wildlife Act (one of only two spiders that are, alongside just a handful of invertebrates) and it is an offence to harass or disturb them so we were careful to replace their homes carefully!”

But, “I currently have a pet stick insect named Sticky and a caterpillar named Gerry. We are hoping Gerry will turn into a moth shortly, as s/he is getting pretty big. They are very low-maintenance pets but not really affectionate.”


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