Interview with Chris Hamilton
Chris Hamilton, PhD candidate at Auburn University, finishing up his dissertation work, which includes the taxonomic revision of the tarantulas in the United States (Aphonopelma).
Have fun with the interview and check out his website 8legs2fangs.com about his fieldtrips, published articles and upcoming data in theraphosidae research.
Chris, Thank you very much for being my first interview partner
Thank you so much for including me in this project. I’m honored to be a part of educating the public about what it is that we do as biologists/arachnologists.
Please tell me about yourself and your work as an Arachnologist
I’m a PhD candidate at Auburn University. I’m finishing up my dissertation work, which includes the taxonomic revision of the tarantulas in the United States (Aphonopelma). I consider myself an arachnologist, but more generally I am an evolutionary biologist that uses spiders to answer evolutionary questions – because spiders are an incredibly unique and diverse lineage on the Tree of Life.
I use phylogenetics and molecular systematics to understand evolutionary relationships, and therefore answer questions on the evolution of unique traits or characters and the effects those have had on lineages through time.
I didn’t have a traditional path of becoming a biologist. Growing up, I thought I’d be a biologist, but as I got older and particularly when I started college, I shifted to other interests (mostly because I did poorly in school – I didn’t focus and study…and I screwed around too much). I eventually found my way into journalism and learned that due to my love of photography I was a pretty good photojournalist. So I finished college doing this and then worked as a photojournalist for newspapers and magazines for a number of years before quitting to go back to biology.
What is your oldest memory of spiders, when was your first contact?
I was always a biology nerd growing up, but I was a reptile/amphibian kid. I actually was afraid of spiders for most of my life. I was fascinated by them…but I did not want them walking on me! As I got older, I learned that I enjoyed confronting any “fears” I may have had. So I got a tarantula to get over my fear of spiders touching me. That fear quickly turned into a love as I began reading/learning all that I could about spiders. This is what eventually brought me back to school, where I took the undergraduate classes that I would need to apply to graduate school.
As far as I know, you are working on several different mygalomorphae spider taxa. Which one you find the most interesting and why?
Well, theraphosids are my favorite mygale group…that should be obvious. This group of spider and the enormous lack of information about their biology is one of the things that brought me back to school.
I guess my other favorites are the Barychelidae because of their evolutionary tie to theraphosids (as a sister group), and the Paratropididae because of the fact that we just don’t know much about them at all. It’s tough, I really love atypids and ctenizids too! Mygalomorphs in general are just so fascinating because we’re pretty sure their diversity is vastly underestimated and undersampled…mostly due to the fact that they’re so hard to find sometimes!
What do you see as a major success in theraphosidae taxonomy?
This is kind of a tough one because of my feelings on the history of theraphosid taxonomy. I have very conflicted feelings. The taxonomic past can amaze me and at the same time drive me mad. I definitely understand the constraints previous taxonomists were working under. These are not easy organisms to identify morphologically because the traditional characters they used to identify, distinguish, delimit species can be enormously uninformative due to the amount of natural variation that can be seen once you look at a lot of specimens (of one species).
I do need to point out that Andrew Smith’s book “Tarantula Spiders – tarantulas of the USA and Mexico” (1994) and Tom Prentice’s work (1992 & 1997) are absolutely important, fundamental works – for different reasons. Andrew’s work is a great reference and was the first time anyone incorporated all the information available at the time on Aphonopelma. Tom’s work is singular because he was really the first one to look at the amount of variation that exists in these traditional characters both within and between species. Prentice’s work really set the stage for my work and how I began to look at what pieces of information were going to be important to understanding species delimitation.
The problem we encounter today is that species were defined using a morphological/typological species concept. This means that when looking at specimens, any difference that was deemed important was essentially used to say something was a new species. It’s not “wrong”, it’s the information they had to work with at the time. We now know so many more parts go into the “species equation”: morphology, molecules (DNA), behavior, ecology, etc.
Species are real biological entities…but they’re also hypotheses. We look at the pieces of information and attempt to determine how they are important towards keeping two lineages separate over evolutionary time. So I view the past taxonomic work as the foundation, and it’s my job to then build off of that and add, fix, or simply acknowledge the validity depending on the situation. You’ll see this in our Aphonopelma revision, there are a bunch of new species, a bunch of species being synonymized, and a bunch of species that both Andrew and Tom described that are valid.
Chris, you are one of the major experts of U.S tarantula spiders.
How often do you work together with government in case of spider questions? Feel free to write down an example of a situation.
Actually, not very often. I’ve worked closely with some of the state and national parks where I’ve collected because they’re quite interested in what species they have. But most importantly, our taxonomic revisionary work on Aphonopelma was funded by the National Science Foundation twice – once to my advisor Dr. Jason Bond and my friend Dr. Brent Hendrixson, and recently to me for my dissertation work.
How important is it to think more overlapping in terms of species diagnostics? (For example: Don’t separate every individual population into a different species just because there are minimal character differences but work more with locality forms/ color morphs and stay with just one species like they do with reptiles and mammals (overlapping) )
This is a hugely important point. As I stated above, the incorporation of as much different information in a species diagnosis as possible is really the only way species boundaries should be determined. Morphology alone should never be used, and the flip-side of this is also true…molecules alone should never be used. They need to be used together with other pieces of information (ecology, behavior, etc.).
Are DNA analyses the future of species diagnostics? If so, where do you see the current morphological based taxonomy in the future?
The use of DNA is absolutely the future…but it’s not the “golden” piece of information that will answer all our questions. DNA information is hugely important, particularly because we can now look at hundreds of genes from across the genome of a number of closely-related species. But the use of DNA on its own does not tell you about how those organisms are interacting with their environment (other species or other members of their own species).
These points cannot be stated enough…it’s why it takes such a long time to carry out a thorough taxonomic revision, like what we’re doing with Aphonopelma. A naturalist’s thorough understanding of their species of interest is immensely valuable and one of the reasons why people have been hearing about our work with Aphonopelma for such a long time (i.e. why it’s taking so long).
In mygalomorphs (and a lot of arthropod groups in general), morphological taxonomic work is problematic because of the amount of morphological variation that exists OR because of an absolute lack of morphological difference, but then within these we see extreme genetic differences. This cryptic species problem is why we try to use multiple pieces of evidence when determining species boundaries.
How important is it to include the spiders behaviour into the species description and do you think it is or could be in the future a feature to separate specimen on species/genus level? For example the “turret-builder” Aphonopelma sp. in the U.S
I think this has been answered above, but yes, it definitely plays into the “species equation”. I will also say that while it can be useful for species-level designation, genera are not real biological entities, they’re artificial groupings that taxonomists use to simply classify groups of organisms.
What are your plans for the future?
I’ll be finishing up my PhD sometime next year and then moving on into a postdoctoral fellowship somewhere (hopefully). My future plans are to branch out into spiders more generally, and to take a more macroevolutionary look at spider evolution. But during my dissertation, I’ve helped adapt a next-generation sequencing approach for phylogenomic work in spiders. This is a method that can be adapted to other arthropod taxa pretty easily, so my postdoc may not be working with spiders at all…we’ll see.
nature lover and arachno enthusiasts who is traveling the world in search for ecological insights and new species of Theraphosidae and other arachnids