Field of Science

The Running of the Crabs

There are many varieties of spider in the world that, while not necessarily uncommon, tend to be little known to the general public owing to their cryptic and retiring nature. As an example, meet the genus Philodromus.

Philodromus cespitum, copyright R. Altenkamp.

Philodromus is the largest genus recognised in the family Philodromidae, commonly referred to as the running crab spiders or small huntsman spiders. About 250 species have been assigned to this genus from various parts of the world (Muster 2009), mostly in the Holarctic region. Like the huntsman spiders of the Sparassidae and the crab spiders of the Thomisidae, philodromids are an example of what old publications often referred to as 'laterigrade' spiders, in which the legs are arranged to extend sideways from the body more than forwards and backwards. They have eight eyes arranged in two recurved rows of four. Philodromids differ from crab spiders in having scopulae (clusters of hairs that can look a bit like little booties) on the leg tarsi, and having secondary eyes that lack a tapetum (reflective layer). They differ from huntsmen in that the junction between the tarsi and metatarsi is restricted to movement in a single plane, rather than the tarsus being able to move freely (Jocqué & Dippenaar-Schoeman 2007). Philodromids do not build a web to capture prey but instead seize prey directly.

The distinction between Philodromus and other genera in the family has historically been imprecise (Muster 2009) which goes some way to explaining the large number of species it has encompassed. In general, though, the eye rows of Philodromus are relatively weakly recurved, and its body form is less slender than that of the genera Tibellus and Thanatus. These may well be primitive features for the family, and a phylogenetic analysis of philodromids by Muster (2009) indicated that at least one group of species historically included in Philodromus (the P. histrio group) may be more closely related to the slender-bodied genera. The great French arachnologist Eugene Simon recognised several species groups in Philodromus, distinguished by features such as eye arrangement and leg spination, but recent authors feel that the status of these groups requires further investigation before we could consider treat?ing them as distinct genera.

Philodromus dispar, copyright Judy Gallagher.

Most species of Philodromus live on vegetation, flattening themselves against stems and foliage to avoid detection. As with other laterigrade spiders, the arrangement of their legs allows for rapid sideways movement, perfect for avoiding predators or turning up where prey do not expect them. At least one species group found in the Mediterranean region (including P. pulchellus and its relatives) differs in being ground-living, with a predilection for salt flats (Muster et al. 2007). Bites to humans from Philodromus appear to be vanishingly rare: a report on such a bite by Coetzee et al. (2017) appears to be the first record of one (the bite was painful, causing swelling and some ulceration, but without long-term effects following treatment). Philodromus species are much more likely to have a net positive value to humans, as they may act as control agents for insect pests among crops and orchards.


Coetzee, M., A. Dippenaar, J. Frean & R. H. Hunt. 2017. First report of clinical presentation of a bite by a running spider, Philodromus sp. (Araneae: Philodromidae), with recommendations for spider bite management. South African Medical Journal 107 (7): 576–577.

Jocqué, R., & A. S. Dippenaar-Schoeman. 2007. Spider Families of the World. Royal Museum for Central Africa: Tervuren (Belgium).

Muster, C. 2009. Phylogenetic relationships within Philodromidae, with a taxonomic revision of Philodromus subgenus Artanes in the western Palearctic (Arachnida: Araneae). Invertebrate Systematics 23: 135–169.

Muster, C., R. Bosmans & K. Thaler. 2007. The Philodromus pulchellus-group in the Mediterranean: taxonomic revision, phylogenetic analysis and biogeography (Araneae: Philodromidae). Invertebrate Systematics 21: 39–72.

Stilts and Avocets

Visit a healthy wetland in many parts of the world and you may be able to see boldly patterned, lightly built birds with remarkably long legs and bills wading through the shallows. These are the members of the Recurvirostridae, commonly known as the stilts and avocets.

American avocets Recurvirostra americana, from here.

About a dozen species of recurvirostrid are currently recognised, depending on the exact classification scheme in play. They are divided between three genera with the avocets forming the genus Recurvirostra and the stilts divided between Himantopus and Cladorhynchus. The most obvious distinction between the two subgroups is in the shape of the bill: that of stilts is straight but avocets have a distinct upwards curve towards the end of theirs. A fourth genus has often been included in the Recurvirostridae for the ibisbill Ibidorhyncha struthersii, a striking-looking inhabitant of the upland rivers of the Himalayan plateau, but uncertainty about this bird's phylogenetic position has led most recent authors to exclude it from the family.

The recurvirostrids feed mostly on small aquatic invertebrates such as brine shrimp or insect larvae. Their long legs, among the longest relative to body size of any bird, allow them to wade in deeply in search of prey. Stilts actively probe the waters and underlying sediment whereas avocets tend to forage by sweeping their bill through the water side to side. Avocets and the banded stilt Cladorhynchus leucocephalus of Australia prefer brackish waters such as lagoons and estuaries, with the banded stilt congegrating around the great salt lakes of inland Australia. Breeding is conducted by monogamous pairs that share the duty of incubating their simple nest on the ground near water. These nests may be gathered into loose colonies; the banded stilt forms particularly large colonies in which the chicks are herded into communal creches of several hundred.

Pied stilt Himantopus leucocephalus, copyright JJ Harrison.

The majority of recurvirostrids are patterned with black or dark brown and white. The red-necked avocet Recurvirostra novaehollandiae has the head and neck coloured reddish-brown as does the American avocet R. americana during the breeding season. The banded stilt has a broad reddish-brown band across the top of the breast. There is also the black stilt Himantopus novaezelandiae of New Zealand, which is somewhat self-explanatory. Beaks are black in all species; the legs are grey in avocets and red in stilts.

Four geographically distinct species of avocet occupy the modern world: the American avocet in North America, the red-necked avocet in Australia, the pied avocet Recurvirostra avosetta in Eurasia and Africa, and the Andean avocet R. andina in South America. The Andean avocet is a bird of high altitudes, occupying shallow, alkaline lakes in the upper Andes. Cladorhynchus includes only the banded stilt. The most varied taxonomy concerns the genus Himantopus. Historically, all the black-and-white stilts (and sometimes also the black stilt) have been recognised as a single near-cosmopolitan species. In more recent years, the trend has been towards recognition of five or six distinct species in the genus. Most of these species are well separated geographically except for in New Zealand where the black stilt shares its range with the pied stilt Himantopus leucocephalus, a more recent immigrant from Australia. The breeding range of the black stilt is currently restricted to a relatively small area of New Zealand's South Island, and the species is considered endangered due to factors such as habitat alteration and the threat of hybridisation with the more abundant pied stilt*.

*It's worth spending some thought on the role of hybridisation as a conservation risk. Some observers may express concern that regarding hybridisation as a threat per se carries uncomfortable intonations of "racial purity", and that limiting the available gene pool may do more harm than good. After all, it's not as if the black stilt heritage of hybrid individuals is just gone (hybrids between the two species are, I believe, fully fertile and able to produce offspring of their own). The question is, I suppose, do the black stilt genes actually persist in the mixed population? Or does selection and/or drift winnow them out over time? This would be a difficult question to answer, and not without risk to find out.

Banded stilts Cladorhynchus leucocephalus and red-necked avocets Recurvirostra novaehollandiae, copyright Ed Dunens.

Phylogenetically, it is reasonably well established that recurvirostrids form a clade with the ibisbill and oystercatchers. This clade is in turn closely related to the plovers of the Charadriidae; indeed, many recent phylogenies have indicated that the recurvirostrid-oystercatcher clade may even be nested within the plovers as generally recognised. Considering the relatively small number of species in each clade, it might seem reasonable to suggest the recurvirostrids be reduced to a subfamily of the Charadriidae, but bird taxonomists being bird taxonomists, there seems to be more of a push to divide the Charadriidae up instead.

The fossil record of the Recurvirostridae is limited. A handful of species have been assigned to this family from the Eocene, but all are known from limited remains and their position is questionable. Coltonia recurvirostra is known from part of a wing from Utah; it was a relatively large bird, appearing to be more than one-and-a-half times the size of any living recurvirostrid. Fluviatilavis antunesi was described from a femur, humerus and radius from Portugal but was described as exhibiting some primitive features not found in modern recurvirostrids. It is also worth noting that its original description (Harrison 1983) compared it most favourably with the ibisbill, so if that species is not to be regarded as a recurvirostrid, probably neither is Fluviatilavis.


Harrison, C. J. O. 1983. A new wader, Recurvirostridae (Charadriiformes), from the early Eocene of Portugal. Ciências da Terra 7: 9–16.


Below is an example of Taxocrinus, a genus of fossil crinoids known from the later Devonian and earlier Carboniferous of Europe and North America. It is a relatively plesiomorphic representative of the flexible crinoids, one of the major crinoid lineages of the Palaeozoic era.

Taxocrinus colletti, copyright James St. John.

Flexible crinoids are characterised by arms that lack pinnules, the small side-branches found on the arms of most other crinoids. As a result, the preserved arms have a somewhat tentacle-like appearance, and are commonly preserved coiled in over the oral surface of the central cup. In Taxocrinus, the arms were regularly and isotomously bifurcated: that is, they divided between two branches of more or less equal size. The central cup itself in flexible crinoids was (somewhat counter-intuitively) quite inflexible, with the plates of the aboral surface firmly jointed together. The oral surface bore a more flexible covering of small plates, and an anal tube (visible near the midline of the fossil above) directed waste away from the mouth. The stem was round in cross section and lacked lateral cirri (Moore 1978).

Flexible crinoids were around for a very long time but it is rare for them to be found in abundance. As such, they were probably specialised for particular habitats that were either uncommon or less likely to be preserved. It has been suggested that, because their pinnule-less arms would have been poorly suited for filtering particles from strong currents, flexible crinoids may have inhabited calm, low-energy waters (Breimer 1978) (though I do wonder if enlarged tube feet may have partially filled the role of pinnules; is it possible to estimate the size of the tube feet from the preserved skeleton?) Crinoids living in such habitats will often hold the arms in a bowl arrangement so they may capture particles settling from higher in the water column. In the case of the flexible crinoids, moving the arms in and out may have created local water movements to further draw such particles in.

Though Taxocrinus itself would disappear in the mid-Carboniferous, flexible crinoids as a whole would persist to the end of the Permian. In more derived forms, the branching of the arms was often unequal, with the smaller branches effectively replacing the missing pinnules. In the end, though, the specialised flexibles were yet another casualty of the end-Permian cataclysm that so shook the composition of life on this planet.


Breimer, A. 1978. Autecology. In: Moore, R. C., & C. Teichert (eds) Treatise on Invertebrate Paleontology pt T. Echinodermata 2 vol. 1 pp. T331–T343. The Geological Society of America, Inc.: Boulder (Colorado), and The University of Kansas: Lawrence (Kansas).

Moore, R. C. 1978. Flexibilia. In: Moore, R. C., & C. Teichert (eds) Treatise on Invertebrate Paleontology pt T. Echinodermata 2 vol. 2 pp. T759–T812. The Geological Society of America, Inc.: Boulder (Colorado), and The University of Kansas: Lawrence (Kansas).

White by Evening in the American Southwest

Though various species of it may be found around the world, the evening primrose family Onagraceae reaches its highest diversity in the south-west of North America. For this post, I'm looking at a genus endemic to this region, Eremothera.

Eremothera boothii, copyright Kerry Woods.

Eremothera is one of several genera of evening primroses newly recognised by Wagner et al. (2007). The species included in this genus had previously been included in the broader genera Oenothera or Camissonia, but these genera were progressively broken down owing to polyphyly and poor definitions. Eremothera species are annual herbs with more or less erect stems. Leaves are arranged on the stem alternately; those near the base are carried on a long petiole of up to six centimetres. The genus is distinguished from its close relatives by having mostly white flowers that open in the evening (in rare cases they my be pink or red, fading as they age). Pollination is by moths when the flowers first open, with small bees visiting the flowers the following morning. The fruit is a long capsule that arises directly from the main stem without a subtending stalk.

Eremothera refracta with flowers and green fruits, copyright Stan Shebs.

Seven species of Eremothera were recognised by Wagner et al. (2007). Eremothera nevadensis is a specialist of clay soil that occupies a relatively small range in Nevada, around Reno. Eremothera refracta is a widespread species in the south-west United States with fruit that are of an even diameter along their length (Hickman 1993). Eremothera chamaenerioides is a self-pollinating derivative of E. refracta with smaller flowers in which the stigma is surrounded and overtopped by the anthers. Eremothera boothii and E. minor (both also widespread) have fruits that are wider at the base than at the tip. In E. minor the inflorescence is held erect; in E. boothii the flowers nod. Two localised species, E. gouldii and E. pygmaea, are self-pollinating derivatives of E. boothii. Eremothera minor is also self-pollinating, and may in some cases even be cleistogamous with pollen being transferred to the stigma without the flower even opening.


Hickman, J. C. (ed.) 1993. The Jepson Manual: Higher Plants of California. University of California Press: Berkeley (California).

Wagner, W. L., P. C. Hoch & P. H. Raven. 2007. Revised classification of the Onagraceae. Systematic Botany Monographs 83: 1–240.

Slippers on the Coast

The 'limpet' form is something that has evolved numerous times among gastropods, as various lineages of marine snail converted to a more or less unwhorled shell and low profile. In many cases, the evolution of the limpet form is also associated with high energy environments, the ability to nestle against rocks helping the gastropod maintain its grip against the surge of the waves. In the modern world, the most diverse and familiar lineage of limpets is that including the common limpets of the genus Patella and their relatives, but there also many independent lineages to be found. One of these is the slipper limpets of the genus Crepidula.

Various views of shell of Crepidula onyx, copyright H. Zell.

Slipper limpets get their vernacular name from the shape of their shell, whose more or less oval shape together with a jutting internal horizontal shelf (the septum) at one end gives the overall impression of a carpet slipper. About forty species (including fossils) of Crepidula are currently recognised worldwide. Species recognition has historically been difficult owing to their simple form and tendency to vary according to the environment in which they mature, but Hoagland (1977) identified a number of key distinguishing features such as disposition and shape of the muscle scars, features of the septum, and conformation of the apical beak of the shell. In contrast to the grazing common limpets, slipper limpets are filter feeders using their gill to capture micro-algae from the water column. They are protandric hermaphrodites, beginning their life as males but maturing into females as they grow. Eggs are brooded under the shell when first produced; in some species, the eggs are subsequently released to hatch into planktonic larvae whereas other species produce fewer eggs but retain them until the young have developed to the crawling stage. For instance, two species found on the east coast of North America that are very similar in adult appearance and have been confused historically differ in that Crepidula ustulatulina, found around Florida and the Gulf of Mexico, produces free-living larvae whereas the more northerly C. convexa does not.

Mating stack of Crepidula fornicata, copyright Dendroica cerulea.

The most renowned species of slipper limpet is the northern Atlantic Crepidula fornicata. This species was originally native to the eastern coast of North America but was accidentally imported to Europe in the late 1800s in association with oysters being transported as stock for farming (Blanchard 1997). In the subsequent years, C. fornicata has become increasingly widespread on the shores of Europe, and is often a significant fouling pest for oyster farms. It has also been introduced to even further flung locations such as Japan and Washington State. Crepidula fornicata is famed for its habit of forming high mating stacks with several smaller males living permanently on the dorsal surface of larger females. If the female of a stack dies, the largest male may develop into a female. Not all Crepidula species form such stacks: in some, just two or three individuals may form a temporary cluster when mating.

Historically, Crepidula has been distinguished from other genera in the limpet family Calyptraeidae by their posterior shell apex and flat septum (other calyptraeid genera may have a cone-shaped shell and/or cup-shaped septum). However, a molecular analysis of the family by Collin (2003) found that species of Crepidula sensu Hoagland (1977) did not form a single clade within Calyptraeidae, and the genus' prior members are now divided between at least four genera. While these genera may be distinguishable using features of the soft anatomy, they are almost indistinguishable from the shells alone.


Blanchard, M. 1997. Spread of the slipper limpet Crepidula fornicata (L. 1758) in Europe. Current state and consequences. Scientia Marina 61 (Suppl. 2): 109–118.

Collin, R. 2003. Phylogenetic relationship among calyptraeid gastropods and their implications for the biogeography of marine speciation. Systematic Biology 52 (5): 618–640.

Hoagland, K. E. 1977. Systematic review of fossil and recent Crepidula and discussion of evolution of the Calyptraeidae. Malacologia 16 (2): 353–420.