Not so taxonomist and arachnologist Rebecca Godwin, who holds a 2020 doctorate in entomology from the University of California, Davis and just published a comprehensive taxonomic revision of the New World members of the trapdoor spider genus, Ummidia.
In a nearly 10-year project that encompassed 800 specimens from 16 natural history museums throughout the world (including the Bohart Museum of Entomology at UC Davis), she updated the descriptions of the 20 known New World spiders, and described 33 new species.
“This study, along with many others conducted utilizing museum collections, is indicative of the importance of natural history collections and their usefulness in discovering unknown biodiversity,” said Godwin, who joined the faculty of Piedmont University, Demorest, Ga., last August as an assistant professor of biology.
Ummidia are medium-sized trapdoor spiders that construct silk-lined burrows, usually with cork-type doors. Their burrows, often covered with leaf litter, are difficult to find.
“The revision was an undertaking,” Godwin said. “I first started working on it almost ten years ago, but it was really only scratching the surface of the stories these spiders have to tell.”
Her major professor, Jason Bond, the Evert and Marion Schlinger Endowed Chair in Insect Systematics, UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology, co-authored the paper, “Taxonomic Revision of the New World Members of the Trapdoor Spider Genus Ummidia Thorell (Araneae, Mygalomorphae, Halonoproctidae),” published April 2 in ZooKeys.
Importance of Taxonomy
"The Ummidia revision really highlights the importance of taxonomic work and typifies the large number of arthropod species that remain to be described, even in North America,” Bond said. “In many instances, taxonomic work alone stands between a species being lost to both extinction and obscurity, particularly in light of the current human driven wave of mass extinction. As such, one could argue that never before has the discipline been so important; it is impossible to ‘save,' conserve, and/or inventory undiscovered species.”
Godwin's “richly descriptive taxonomic monographs represent important, hypothesis-driven science,” Bond said. “Rebecca started her work with a collection of specimens and then postulated tests of what constituted the limits of a species; where in the hierarchy of life that species is placed; and what homologous characters support her hypotheses."
At the onset of the UC Davis research, the number of described species in the genus, plus one subspecies, totaled 27. Of that initial number, 20 were considered New World species or in the Western hemisphere (the Americas.) The distribution ranged from North America and South America to Asia, Northern Africa and Europe.
“I am continually blown away by how little we know about what is out there living on this planet with us,” Godwin commented. “I think that anytime we can learn more about the organisms we share this planet with, it's a valuable endeavor. Most people don't even realize they are sharing their space with these spiders, literally right under their feet—not to mention the fact that these spiders tend to have very limited ranges and have very low dispersal. They can be winked out of existence without our ever knowing they were here, and I find that kind of heartbreaking.”
“Additionally, I think Ummidia is a fascinating group for evolutionary and population dynamic studies,” Godwin said. “Within a single genus there are the ‘traditional' extremely non-vagile species sympatric with species that appear to have mastered ballooning, potentially giving them much greater dispersal capabilities.”
Godwin said that “there are incredibly small species living alongside relatively quite large species. Is this dwarfism? Paedomorphism? Are there potentially sneaker males at work? We know so little about the actual life history and behavior of these spiders and how it might be varying from species to species.”
The authors examined trapdoor specimens from natural history museums in five countries—United States, Mexico, Italy, England, Germany and Colombia. Within the United States, they researched collections from 10 states: New York, California, Ohio, Colorado, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Texas, Oklahoma, Florida and Virginia.
“Ummidia is a wide-ranging genus, found in the southwestern Mediterranean, Central Asia, and in the Americas from as far north as Ohio and Maryland west to Arizona and south to Brazil, including the Greater and Lesser Antilles,” they wrote.
Ballooning, a behavior that distinguishes some Ummidia, “facilitates the dispersal of individuals over geographic features that would otherwise serve as barriers to gene flow,” they noted.
“Although species of Ummidia are very widespread and occur in a number of habitats, they tend to be very patchy in their distribution,” they wrote. “This, paired with the highly cryptic nature of their burrows, make them very difficult to collect, and so by necessity this revision is based almost entirely on historic rather than newly collected material. Much of this material was amassed from a number of collectors and institutions by the late Dr. Willis Gertsch, who spent over 40 years working on a revision of the group. Gertsch never published his work on Ummidia prior to his passing in 1999, but his notes and correspondence, stored in the archives of the American Museum of Natural History proved useful and insightful in the completion of this work.”
Godwin, citing the difficulty of revising the morphologically homogenous group, quoted Gertsch in one of his writings: “This is the most difficult ctenizid genus I know with such feeble, variable, erratic, aberrant characters that I find myself uncertain as to...what is a species.”
The Evert and Marion Schlinger Endowment primarily funded the trapdoor spider research. Godwin also received a $2000 Auburn University Museum of Natural History Collection Improvement Grant in 2015; and a $500 Auburn University Graduate School Research Fellowship in 2015-2016.
Godwin's research on trap spiders won high honors in graduate student competitions at the 2019 American Arachnological Society (AAS) meeting, held in Lexington, Va., and the 2018 Entomological Society of America (ESA) meeting, held in Vancouver, BC. She won first place in the AAS student poster competition, and second in the ESA President's Prize graduate student competition.
Godwin holds two degrees from Auburn University: a bachelor's degree in zoology (2004) and her master's degree in wetland biology (2011). She began her doctoral studies at Auburn University in 2014, and transferred to UC Davis in 2018 when Bond, her major professor, accepted his UC Davis position.
At Piedmont University, Godwin teaches a number of biology classes, including introductory biology and invertebrate zoology. Her main research interests include the phylogenetics, taxonomy, and systematics of trapdoor spiders.
She is also keenly interested in science communication. “I have a true passion for effectively communicating science both with students in the classroom as well as with the public,” she said. “I believe that effective science communication at all levels and societal science literacy are crucial to create an informed society.”
Rebecca Godwin won first in the poster competition for her research on trapdoor spiders and Lacie Newton won second for her oral presentation on species delimitation. Their major professor, Jason Bond, is the department's Evert and Marion Schlinger Endowed Chair in Insect Systematics.
Godwin titled her work, “Revision of New World Ummidia (Mygalomorphae, Halonoproctidae)”: Her abstract: “Ummidia is a historically taxonomically difficult group of spiders belonging to the infraorder Mygalomorphae, one of the three main lineages recognized within spiders. Mygalomorph life history and their incredibly cryptic appearance make them difficult to identify, as a result they are frequently overlooked by spider systematists. Ummidia Thorell 1875 is a wide-ranging genus of trapdoor spider found both in the Mediterranean region of the Old World and in the New World from the eastern United States south to Brazil. Taxonomic work on New World Ummidia is sparse outside of original descriptions, the most recent of which are over half a century old."
"I am revising the genus Ummidia in the Nearctic region. I have approached this taxonomic problem by examining approximately 700 specimens of Ummidia from various collections (American Museum of Natural History, Museum of Comparative Zoology, Florida State Collection of Arthropods, California Academy of Sciences, and Auburn University Museum of Natural History). Examination of museum material has seemingly confirmed the undescribed diversity of Ummidia; preliminary estimates of New World species ranging between 50 and 60, with particularly high amounts of diversity in the Florida and Virginia. This study, along with many others conducted utilizing museum collections, is indicative of the importance of natural history collections and their usefulness in discovering unknown biodiversity.”
"Previous research by Hendrixson and Bond (2005) described a new sympatric species Antrodiaetus microunicolor in the A. unicolor species complex using morphological criteria (i.e. size and setal character differences) and behavioral criteria (non-overlapping mating seasons). Subsequently, they used two molecular markers COI and 28S and discovered that A. unicolor is paraphyletic with respect to A. microunicolor. To further delineate this species complex, we implement the cohesion species concept and employ multiple lines of evidence for testing genetic exchangeability and ecological interchangeability. Our integrative approach includes extensively sampling homologous loci across the genome using a version of RADseq called 3RAD, assessing population structure across their geographic range, and evaluating ecological similarity by niche-based distribution modeling. Based on our analyses, we conclude that this species complex has two or three species in addition to A. microunicolor.”
Godwin holds two degrees from Auburn University: her bachelor's degree in zoology in 2004, and her master's degree in wetland biology in 2011. She began her doctoral studies at Auburn University in 2014, and transferred to UC Davis when Bond accepted the UC Davis position in 2018.
Godwin's research interests include taxonomy, systematics, and phylogreography of trapdoor spiders, as well as effective science communication and increasing general science literacy.
Newton received her bachelor of science degree from Millsaps College, Jackson, Miss., in 2016, and then joined the Auburn University doctoral program. Like Godwin, she transferred to UC Davis with her major professor in 2018. Newton served as an undergraduate teaching assistant at Millsaps College for “Introduction to Cell Biology” and “General Zoology,” and as a graduate teaching assistant in “Introduction to Biology” at Auburn University.
Newton now serves as a graduate teaching assistant at UC Davis for “Introduction to Biology: Biodiversity and the Tree of Life.” She won the 2019-2020 George H. Vansell Scholarship, UC Davis. Her research interests include systematics, species delimitation, and phylogeography of spiders; phylogenetics; comparative transcriptomics of troglophilic and troglobitic spiders; cave biology and conservation.
Both Godwin and Newton volunteer at the Bohart Museum of Entomology's programs on spiders and at the campuswide UC Davis Biodiversity Museum Day.
Bond joined the UC Davis faculty after a seven-year academic career at Auburn University, Ala. He served as professor of biology and chair of the Department of Biological Sciences from January 2016 to July 2018, and as curator of arachnids and myriapods (centipedes, millipedes, and related animals) at the Auburn University Museum of Natural History, from August 2011 to July 2018.
She studies with major professor Jason Bond, the Evert and Marion Schlinger Endowed Chair in Insect Systematics in the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology.
Godwin delivered her presentation—her first ever at an ESA meeting--on “Phylogeny of a Cosmopolitan Family of Morphologically Conserved Trapdoor Spiders (Mygalomorphae, Ctenizidae) Using Anchored Hybrid Enrichment, with a Description of the Family Halonoproctidae Pocock 1901.”
Godwin competed against nine other presenters in her category, "Graduate Student 10-Minute Presentations: Phylogenetics" (within the ESA Systematics, Evolution and Biodiversity Section).
As a prize winner, she received a year's membership to ESA and a certificate. Overall, the ESA program drew 265 scientific sessions featuring 2,430 oral and 569 poster presentations with presenters from 68 different countries, according to Joe Rominiecki, ESA manager of communications. The submissions in the student competitions totaled 773, he said, adding “A student may enter both the Student 3-Minute Presentation Competition and the Student Poster Competition.”
Godwin's dissertation research deals generally with trapdoor spiders in the family Ctenizidae. “These spiders are distributed across the globe, on every continent but Antarctica,” she noted. “They create silk-lined burrows with cryptic trap doors in which they spend their entire lives. Broadly, I am studying the evolutionary history and phylogenetic relationships among the members of the Ctenizidae, and describing a large amount of previously undocumented diversity along the way. Specifically, my dissertation addresses the monophyly of the family, phylogeography of two genera, Hebestatis and Bothriocyrtum, which occur in the California Floristic Province, and a revision of the genus Ummidia in North and South America.”
The abstract of her ESA presentation:
“The mygalomorph family Ctenizidae previously had a world-wide distribution and contained nine genera and 135 species. However, the monophyly of this group had long been questioned on both morphological and molecular grounds. We use Anchored Hybrid Enrichment (AHE) to gather hundreds of loci from across the genome for reconstructing the phylogenetic relationships among the nine genera and test the monophyly of the family. We also reconstruct the possible ancestral ranges of the most inclusive clade recovered.”
“Using AHE, we generate a supermatrix of 565 loci and 115,209 bp for 27 individuals. For the first time, analyses using all nine genera produce results definitively establishing the non-monophyly of Ctenizidae. A lineage formed exclusively by representatives of South African Stasimopus was placed as the sister group to the remaining taxa in the tree, and the Mediterranean Cteniza and Cyrtocarenum were recovered with high support as sister to exemplars of Euctenizidae, Migidae, and Idiopidae. All the remaining genera—Bothriocyrtum, Conothele, Cyclocosmia, Hebestatis, Latouchia, and Ummidia—share a common ancestor. Based on these results, we elevated this clade to the level of family. Our results definitively establish both the non-monophyly of the Ctenizidae and non-validity of the subfamilies Ummidiinae and Ctenizinae. We formally described the family Halonoproctidae Pocock 1901 and infer that the family's most recent common ancestor was likely distributed in western North America and Asia.”
Godwin holds a bachelor of science degree in zoology (2004) and a master's degree in wetland biology (2011) from Auburn (Ala.) University. She joined the doctoral program at Auburn University in 2016 and transferred to UC Davis this year, joining her major professor Jason Bond, a seven-year Auburn faculty member who chaired the Department of Biological Sciences, and curated arachnids and myriapods at the Auburn University Museum of Natural History.
Godwin will be among those participating in the Bohart Museum of Entomology's open house on "Eight-Legged Wonders" on Saturday, March 9, from 1 to 4 p.m. The Bohart is located in Room 1124 of the Academic Surge Building on Crocker Lane. She was featured in a recent article in the Savannah Morning News, Georgia, on trapdoor spiders.