Photograph by Mark Wong
Photograph courtesy Mark Wong
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
An entomologist and bug-catching extraordinaire, just like Georges Brossard! Inspired by his creepy crawly adventures, much of my childhood in Singapore was spent searching under rocks for scolopendromorph centipedes and trying my hand at "fishing" out the little native tarantulas from their silken burrows.
How did you get started in your field of work?
Growing up, I realised that my peers, community, and even some conservation groups did not share my love for arthropods, owing to wider public interest for the "bigger things" in nature. In university, I came across works by Edward Wilson, who believes that every organism, regardless of its size, abundance, or amiability, inherently possesses a unique and irreplaceable merit to science. Inspired, I wanted to discover such merits of unpopular arthropods. I began by studying the deadly funnel-web spiders, which are among the few animals that all Australians unquestionably do not want in their backyards.
What inspires you to dedicate your life to funnel-web spiders and other arthropods?
Studying arthropods is exploration at its finest, because you're guaranteed to stumble onto something new, important, or just plain weird! Why? Because arthropods are the most diverse animals on our planet—in some places their species even outnumber mammals by 300 to 1! Crucially, thousands of plants and animals rely on arthropods for survival (ourselves included); researching these critters is thus not simply exciting but also incredibly meaningful to me. To be honest, I started with funnel-web spiders because I just can't resist dangerous things that bite!
What's a normal day like for you?
When I'm doing fieldwork, I'll be up by 7 a.m. to take the truck to the forest. Wedge-tailed eagles, wombats, and wallabies are common sights along the way. Fieldwork typically extends till dusk, as I record environmental data and scour the undersides of rotting logs for the elusive spiders. Collecting a funnel-web spider is much harder than you'd think, and may take as long as an hour if my target is hiding deep in its subterranean burrow. A good day will see me returning with about 30 specimens; a bad day, none at all.
Much of my week is also spent in the lab doing experiments, writing papers, and occasionally doodling out scientific illustrations. When I can afford the time, I demonstrate for various courses at the university.
Do you have a hero?
I don't have a personal hero, but I do admire academics who can engage general audiences about their scientific research with simple, elegant narratives. I believe that love and concern for the natural world is best nurtured through an appreciation for its complexities in our own humanly terms. Richard Dawkins and Edward Wilson are such masters of scientific communication.
What's been your favorite experience in the field? The most challenging?
My favorite experience: the time I discovered a unique funnel-web specimen. Instead of sporting the usual full-black coat, its head was dorsally embellished with a faint triangular marking, while the underside glowed a deep crimson. More striking still was the asymmetrical coloration on its pair of powerful fang muscles—the right was solid black, but the left was bright scarlet! Despite having seen hundreds of funnel-web spiders in our time, my colleagues and I have never come across such distinct color patterns, and we still remain baffled by this enigma.
The most challenging: whenever it pours. The discomfort of being wet and cold for hours would actually be tolerable if there were any spiders to collect, but this never happens because they don't like being soaked any more than I do. Instead, to my frustration (and envy) they'll always stay out of reach, retreating deep into their cozy, dry chambers, leaving me shivering and empty-handed.
What are your other passions?
I enjoy a good jungle trek or trail run when I'm in Southeast Asia every now and then.
In Their Words
Studying arthropods is exploration at its finest, because you're guaranteed to stumble onto something new, important, or just plain weird.