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The itsy bitsy spider goes up the Motherlode Chair: Arachnology reaches the peak of Granite

Dr. Robb Bennett checks out an eight-legged friend at the edge of the microwave cliffs.

 Three dusty, sun-beaten spider scientists turned up on my doorstep on a hot September morning eager to explore a new frontier in entomology: they were headed to the top of Granite Mountain to seek high altitude tarantulas, trapdoor spiders, and endemic rarities — albeit the size of lentils — like "Microhexura" and "Cybaeus," and I was invited along.

The bug hunters were giddy like schoolchildren, spilling over with enthusiasm after a week of similar adventures around Kootenay Pass, driving "anus clenching roads" and traversing remote ridges on foot, turning stones and logs along the way to find wee British Columbians not yet recorded in the annals of science.

How could I refuse to join such a mission?

And I can't resist jumping right into the day’s big reward: we ended up with a beautiful little spider, C. bicornis, who sports horns like a rhinoceros. First collected by one Mrs. Hippisley in 1923 near Terrace and found there once again in the mid 1990s, bicornis also popped up recently near Juneau, Alaska, and twice at high elevation sites in central Washington. A rare spider, to be sure, and the find on Granite is Canada's third!

Out of their truck the naturalists yanked microscopes, boxes of pinned insects, and vials of spiders in alcohol to make room for my dog and me, stuffing us in with the butterfly nets and notebooks while draping a "pooter" around my neck.

A pooter, for the uninitiated, is a piece of rubber tube attached to a clear plexiglass straw separated from the tube by a piece of mesh — the mesh is optional, I was told, depending on how much they like you. It's quite simple to use: You flip a rock, chase the spiders with the straw while sucking on the tube, and the little guys get swooshed right up. Then you "poot" them into a vial of strong booze to send them to their happy place, preserved forever more.

Thanks to a nod from Red Mountain's Steve Bouchier, we bounced up from the day lodge to the top of Silverlode, around Southside to Paradise Lodge, and finally up Silver Sheep to the ridge of Granite.

It's unlikely that Granite, let alone the other hills in the Rossland range, has ever had its flanks scoured by such serious bug hunters. With a century's experience in natural science between them, the trio struck off into the entomo-unknown.

"We're going places other naturalists have never gone before," said Claudia Copley about remote areas they'd visited earlier in the week.

Claudia secured the grant for this week-long mission through her work at the Royal BC Museum in Victoria where, besides spider genetics and taxonomy, she works on the institution's impressive Entomology Collection. With roughly a quarter million recorded specimens and many more awaiting identification, the museum houses one of North America's finest bug repositories and Canada's only active spider collection.

To round out the expedition, she grabbed her husband Darren — a naturalist who doled out environmental wisdom in parks in every corner of BC for more than two decades until Liberal cutbacks killed the programs — and Robb Bennett, one of Canada's foremost arachnologists and a mentor to both Claudia and Darren while he dedicates himself to documenting Canada's spider biodiversity.

Admittedly, with Stephen Harper at the country's helm there's much less support for biodviersity research than in the past, and this project is no exception. Besides a modest per diem, Darren and Robb jumped on board for the thrill of lifting stones never before turned by science — that is, for free.

"It's like summer camp for adults," Darren laughed. More seriously, he noted, "This whole region has been under-collected."

"And essentially uncollected in terms of the tiny stuff," Robb added. "All the big spiders, the ones you see running around, the wolf spiders and the garden spiders, they're all really well known because they've been picked up by generalist collectors." He grinned, "But we're specialists."

One spider on their most-wanted list is only the size of a pinhead, he said, but "faster than greased lightning." Three years ago in the Flathead, Claudia and Darren caught the first specimen ever known to science. Later, while working through vial after vial of unidentified spiders at the museum, Darren and Robb found another specimen collected in Montana a decade ago — but that's all.

Robb admired his younger colleague's keen vision and sharp reflexes to actually catch the critter. They, in turn, admired Robb's skills of observation and taxonomy, honed over a lifetime to slot animals into their proper place in the gargantuan web of life. The fun part still remains: choosing a Latin name for ol' greased lightning.

"It's been awesome to have an opportunity to work with the BC expert. I've learned a hell of a lot," Darren said. But Robb was quick to point out all he's learned from his colleagues, the natural world being such an unfathomable mass of mystery as to confound any single mind.

Darren, for example, studied birds for years, doing surveys on endangered Purple Martins, but has since developed a broad expertise in many animal groups and ecosystems. He describes his life's work as outreach, "trying to get people interested in nature," and blames his present incarnation as an entomologist on his wife: "With Claudia being so good at insects, I got the bug."

"Since I was a child I was crazy about insects and life in general," Claudia said, earning the nickname Beetle as she made mini habitats in jars. "Working for the museum is getting paid to do what you love every day."

"Lots of visitors come by the museum, and we're always getting questions about spiders," Claudia said. "I was always sending those to Robb." So she decided to go to graduate school to study spiders, identifying 23 new species in the process.

Up in the Kootenay hills, the team was actively hunting a new species of Cybaeus the crew discovered last year. The discovery shocked the world's Cybaeus expert: "I was completely surprised!" Robb laughed as his colleagues rubbed his nose in it. "He didn't know," Darren chuckled gleefully. So far, The elusive Cybaeus seems to only live in and around the Darkwoods area of the Nelson range, so finding it in the Rossland Range would be a coup.

Microhexura was also on the wanted list, a two to three millimetre tarantuloid the team found on Cornice Ridge at Kootenay Pass.

"We've been going in circles around there trying to see if it's on more peaks in the area," Robb said. The same species is found on few peaks in Washington and Oregon, “but so far we've more or less conclusively determined Cornice Ridge is the only site in Canada."

"We'll find spiders here that we also find all the way down to the coast," Robb explained, "but they all occur as disjunct populations because they're only above a certain altitude and in rock habitat."

For animals who live at high altitudes, mountain peaks are a bit like islands in the ocean. Small populations establish on these "island" peaks, and now and again some offspring get blown offshore and the lucky ones hit new land.

Many high altitude spiders go "aerial ballooning" on a thread of silk, like Charlotte's babies in E.B. White's classic tale. Others will have crawled up the slopes, generation after generation, as the climate warmed following the last ice age. Microhexura, for example, probably doesn't balloon.

Climate change is one reason why it's important to pay attention to these little creatures, since that will have a big impact on rare species such as Microhexura. But, I pressed Robb, why should we care about these little spiders?

"People don't need to care," he said. "What's more important, mountain caribou or Microhexura? Well, I'd say caribou are way more important to consider in terms of habitat in the Kootenay Pass area. But it's all data. It's all ammunition we can use for habitat conservation, which is my ultimate aim."

The question really boils down to identifying special habitats, and little critters can play a big role in that task. Claudia talked about her research in the ancient and logged forests of Carmanah Valley.

"It was amazing," she said, "the spiders are really habitat-specific."

"What areas are significant?" Robb asked. "There may be really cool areas with nothing you might consider very special about them. But spiders and insects will tell you which habitats we should be concentrating efforts on. I'm not trying to shut down mining and logging. I'm just saying, 'This place is special, let's work to preserve it.'"

Looking around from the top of Granite north over the Rossland Range, then east to the Nelson Range and Kootenay Pass, and south into Washington, Robb's message was simple: "All the ridges around here are pretty special."