NZ EntoSoc Conference 2018


The Holwell Lab attended the New Zealand Entomological Society’s annual conference, which was held in Whanganui. Congratulations to lab members Rebecca Le Grice and Cass Mark for winning a 21st Anniversary Award! Erin Powell successfully held a ‘Bugs in the Pub’ outreach event where her and fellow lab mate Neil Birrell presented talks about insects to members of the public. We hope to run more similar events in the future!

New Year, New people, New projects!

2017 welcomes a number of new (and returning) faces to the lab and a burst of enthusiasm for invertebrates, field work, coffee and cake. At the very end of 2016, Erin Powell arrived from Lisa Taylor’s lab at the University of Florida to commence a Marsden Funded PhD project on harvestmen and their ridiculously exaggerated male weaponry. Neil Birrell also finished the year by starting his MSc research on black soldier flies and why you should be eating them (well….indirectly, by way of chickens). Once the clock ticked over into 2017, Rebecca Le Grice – who worked on fighting and mating in giraffe weevils in the Holwell lab during 2014 – returned from her adventures around Africa to start her PhD on the ecology and behaviour of New Zealand seaweed flies. Look out for her on a beach near you! Cass Mark is also returning from her 2014 MSc on moth antennae and a year of work on mantis antennae in the Holwell lab to commence a PhD project looking at crypsis and masquerade in moths. Morgane Merien will also soon start her Honours research project on the stick insect Clitarchus hookeri.

What an exciting time for the lab, lots of new research directions and new species to play with. We are sure to uncover some fascinating natural history and let the world know more about New Zealand’s amazing invertebrates!

Nuptials and new lab mate

Huge congratulations to Cass who got married over the weekend in West Auckland. Our most sincere wishes to her and her new husband, Andrew.

We’re also pleased to welcome a new lab mate. Neil Birrell is almost at the end of his PGDipSci year and will join the lab proper at the end of the year to begin working with the black soldier fly (Hermetia illucens) with a particular focus on potential applications in agriculture.

Neil presenting his research proposal to the department



20th International Congress of Arachnology

So while the rest of the lab made a small hop across the ditch to the annual ASSAB meeting, I (Leilani) was ballooning away to Golden, Colorado for the 20th International Congress of Arachnology. While I’d by lying if I said that I didn’t miss my lab mates during the conference, it was still a lot of fun and I could distract myself during the downtime by trying to photograph every bronze statue in town (there’s more than one statue per 1000 people if the wikipedia population count is to be believed).

Table mountain + quiet Golden street + numerous utes

This year’s ICA was apparently the largest meeting so far with more than 370 delegates. But a well-organised meeting such as this is much like any other well-organised conference inasmuch that you’re too busy enjoying the talks, the social events and meeting other delegates to notice the cogs turning. The consequence is that I’m struggling to describe in ICA in terms other than “I’ve never seen so many talks about scorpions”. Having said that, as a New Zealander, scorpions and vinegaroons might as well be unicorns so that was exciting.

I think the main observation I have about the whole experience would be that ICA was my first international conference defined by its choice of taxa rather than by its field. As a consequence the types of expertise was greater than at something like Behaviour 2015 which I went to last year. While the delegation there worked in a variety of contexts with different techniques, the majority of delegates had started out as students of behaviour. By contrast, many of the talks at ICA sat firmly in the middle of fields outside of my own but simply shared the same focal taxon.

Each type of meeting has its benefits. From my experience, networking with delegates from an approach-centric conference like Behaviour is a great way to develop a deeper understanding of your own field and to get fresh eyes onto your own data. Meanwhile, a taxon-centric conference gives opportunities to broaden your networks and identify experts who can do things which, frankly, it would take me another doctorate to learn.

The other advantage of a taxon-centric meeting is all the paraphernalia and merchandise. All. Of. The. Arachnid. Stuff. All. Of. The. Time.

arach merch

So twitter summary: Conference was fun, people were very helpful, I got to hold a tarantula, A+ meeting

Recapping the 2016 ASSAB Conference

So it’s been just about 2 weeks since the end of the 2016 ASSAB conference in Katoomba, and it’s still on my mind due to what an amazing time it was. I feel I can get so absorbed in my own study area of arachnids and contests that conferences are an amazing way to take a step back and appreciate all the work done by other researchers!

Katoomba 1

Each of the three days started off in the Carrington with plenaries that ranged from orchid-pollinator coevolutionary relationships to colour pattern variation and decision-making in colour changing species. After that, it was a rapid fire of 12 or 3 minute talks, covering topics such as katydid deimatic displays, bellbird song evolution, nocturnal behaviour of orphan Asian elephants, and thermoregulation of meat ants, as well as more technical talks such as a showcase of the new R package pathtrackr. This mixture was a perfect taster and provided an easy way to introduce yourself to the various speakers during the tea and coffee breaks of the day.

The plethora of social events were great in filling up the evenings and offered a relaxed environment in which to mingle, valuable for a new attendee like me! Trivia night didn’t go too well for us, however we didn’t finish in last place (although Chrissie was part of the winning team!) which I was pretty happy about. This, as well as the fantastic conference dinner and hours of dancing we did afterwards on the last night of the talks, again helped in approaching the conference veterans.

Katoomba 2

I hadn’t been to Katoomba or the Blue Mountains before and in the rush of trying to prepare my presentation, didn’t do much research about the area before departing Auckland. After weaving through the landscape by train and arriving in a large windy suburban town, I didn’t anticipate the hidden vista views at Echo Point lookout that opened up on the end of a residential street. The iconic Three Sisters rock formation was beautiful, although unfortunately we weren’t able to take a closer look at them. Definitely a spot I’ve decided I need to visit in future when I next go to Australia and a beautiful unexpected surprise!

All in all, it was an amazing trip filled with meeting a bunch of new people. I really hope that at the 2017 ASSAB, my name will be on the attendee list!

ASSAB Conference

Bright and early on Monday the 4th July, Chrissie, Murray, Josie and I (Cass) set off across the Tasman to Sydney for the annual Australasian Society for the Study of Animal Behaviour (ASSAB) conference. The sky was clear and the sun was warm when we touched down, and after a quick bite to eat at Central Station we hopped on a train for the 2 hour ride up to Katoomba in the Blue Mountains, our home for the next 4 days. The temperature had plummeted by at least 5 degrees when we arrived at the station which was probably a good thing, as by the time we trudged up and down a few small hills to our accommodation we were all a little overheated. After getting settled in and making a quick trip to the supermarket for some food, Greg and Anne arrived with the kiddies and the celebration of Hazel’s first birthday commenced.

Chillin’ in the park while waiting for the train.

On Tuesday morning we headed up to the Carrington Hotel for registration and lunch, following which we were ushered into the Ballroom to receive the opening remarks of the conference. The talks began with a bang (“Boom, Angiosperms!”) as Dr Anne Gaskett presented a wonderful plenary on ‘pollinator behaviour and sensory ecology as the coevolutionary drivers of orchid diversity’, proposing the idea of ‘resilience’ as a new mechanism for maintaining asymmetric coevolutionary relationships. This was followed by a session on conservation and predator-prey interactions where our own Chrissie Painting gave an awesome talk on ‘ant-mimicry in reverse by a colourful jumping spider’. After a quick tea break featuring some amazing biscuits, we were back in the  Ballroom for the next session of talks on signalling, where we heard about bird song diversity and singing behaviour, deimatic displays of katydid’s, and the relative importance of different colour aspects for sexual selection in guppies. This was followed by the presentation of the ASSAB 2016 awards. Next up we had a meet and greet at the hotel bar that Murray, Josie and I may or may not have skipped out on to get dinner… At 8pm we were back at the Carrington for a truly competitive and extremely challenging game of biological trivia that absolutely did not show off our biological knowledge and prowess, perhaps with the exception of Chrissie, whose team came in the top 3. The rest of us most definitely dishonoured the Holwell Lab with our second-to-last placement.

Team Orchid-Weta-Mantid-Spider-Mouse!

Wednesday morning Chrissie, Josie and I snuck in a quick walk down to Echo Point lookout to see The Three Sisters before catching another great plenary given by Dr Jennifer Kelley on ‘colour pattern variation and decision-making in colour-changing animals’. We had a big day of talks ahead and in the following session we heard about prenatal and nestling song learning in birds and visual discrimination and learning in fish. A short tea break (with yummy cream scones) provided some time to look over all the awesome posters that people had made, and then we were back to the  Ballroom for our next session on sexual selection, parental care, management, and the speed talks. Murray was up second to present his research on ‘cavernicolous combat and sexual selection in the New Zealand Cave Weta, Pachyrhamma waitomoensis’, followed shortly by Josie with her ‘integrative approach to investigating male contest behaviour in New Zealand’s sheetweb spiders (Cambridgea spp)’. Both of them absolutely nailed their talks and made the Holwell Lab proud! After some more presentations on fish personalities, the nightlife of orphaned elephants, social lizards, and the secret lives of ducks, we adjourned for a delicious buffet lunch. The next session featured some interesting talks on the effects of weather on the social organisation in coral reef fish, the response of bellbirds to the different developmental stages of song, and the communication of task specific signals through cuticular hydrocarbons on the legs of meat ants. After another quick tea break (and some delectable caramel slices) we were back to the Ballroom for the speed talk session where we learned about visual navigation in mini ants, cuckoo host defences, the hunting choreography of net casting spiders, song complexities of fairy-wrens, and testosterone and sociability in grey kangaroos. Social networking along with drinks and nibbles in the lounge was the next order of business as we awaited the engaging public lecture by Dr Lee Ann Rollins on ‘what makes a species successful at invasion?’ where epigenetics was explored as a new approach to this age-old question. Energy levels were fairly low after such a long and exciting day so following the lecture we gathered a group and went down to the local pub for some more food and then called it a night.

Three Sisters
View of The Three Sisters from Echo Point.

Thursday morning we received the third and final plenary from Dr Camilla Whittington, a stimulating exploration on ‘the genetic basis of evolutionary innovations: seahorse pregnancy and birth’. In the subsequent sessions we were informed about defences against brood parasitism in eastern koel hosts, obligate pollination mutualisms, DNA methylation patterns in an introduced songbird, and inference by exclusion in cockatoos, among many other intriguing biological systems. Prior to lunch we braced the cold and made our way onto the steps of the Carrington for the official ASSAB conference photo. Everyone was grateful to be back in the warmth afterwards, and the delicious buffet topped it off nicely. The following sessions featured talks covering a range of interesting topics including a novel R package for analysing animal movement, the effect of ant social organisation on production and operation costs, body-size awareness in birds, abstract concept learning in honey bees, and stress reactivity, condition and foraging behaviour in zebra finches. A long and very animated AGM completed the days sessions and then everyone went back to their rooms to get dressed up in their finest attire for the conference dinner in the Grand Dining Room. Student prizes were announced at the conference dinner and Murray was awarded first prize for his talk! After the dinner most of the conference-goers headed over to the Baroque Room at the Harp and Fiddle (the oldest Irish pub in Katoomba) for a fun evening of drinks, dancing and socialising.

Murray (and proud supervisor Greg) after he was awarded first place for his talk! (excuse the blurriness).
Lab Family
Lab family photo at the conference dinner.

Friday morning started off with a Career Advice Workshop Breakfast where various academics discussed ways of taking your career to the next level, with Chrissie leading the talk on how to get a Postdoc. This was followed by a post-conference excursion to the Blue Mountains for a bush walk. Murray, Josie and I did not attend the excursion and instead made our way back to Sydney where we each went on our separate ways.

Overall the conference was an extraordinary experience and a wonderful opportunity to meet new people and hear about some fascinating research!

Conference Photo
ASSAB Conference Photo! Photo credit: James O’Hanlon


Conferences and SBS talkfest

It’s pouring buckets outside and the cold is really starting to bite in Auckland. Luckily we’re all gearing up to disperse across the globe for a variety of conferences including:

  • The annual meeting of the Australasian Society for the Study of Animal Behaviour in Katoomba, NSW, Australia;
  • The 20th International Congress of Arachnology in Colorado, USA; and
  • The 6th congress of the International Society for Behavioral Ecology in Exeter, UK.

Consequently the School for Biological sciences’ postgraduate Talkfest yesterday was a great chance to air out our presentations ahead speaking in front of international audiences and nearly all our students participated. We wish all our members the best of luck abroad and look forward to tales of academic adventures and hijinks.