Ecologist goes underground in hunt for one of UK's largest spiders
Dudley canals. Copyright Dudley Canal Trust
June 2009. A University of Birmingham postgraduate student has won a British Ecological Society (BES) grant to search for one of the UK's largest spiders in the eighteenth century canal tunnels deep beneath the Britain's Black Country.
Over the next two years, ecologist Laura Vickers will set up cameras and probes to measure temperature, humidity, CO2 and light levels in the Dudley Canal Tunnel. As well finding out whether the Cave spider has made the canal tunnel its home (the nearest known population is in Lichfield, 10 miles away), Vickers' study will shed light on a unique urban and former industrial environment, and on the habits of this rarely seen spider.
According to Vickers: "This urban, underground environment is unique and combines elements that have not been well studied in one habitat. These tunnels are ecological gems, and we don't know how species react to these environments because they have never been studied before."
Now in the second year of a PhD into aphids and climate change at the University of Birmingham, Vickers' ecological curiosity was piqued while doing voluntary work leading tours of the underground canals with the Dudley Canal Trust, where she became their first woman canal boat skipper.
"I have always been fascinated by the amount of wildlife in and around the caverns and tunnels. These features are located in a once heavily industrialised and polluted area. The presence of animals such as spiders in the tunnels is phenomenal, and how they survive and what limits their distribution has intrigued me for years," she says.
As well as helping illuminate the tunnels' hidden ecology, Vickers hopes her work will eventually provide an opportunity for local people to get involved in local ecology: "The next step would be to widen the survey to include mammals, birds, amphibians, fish and insect monitoring. Despite its urban nature and industrial heritage, this area is biologically very rich. We need to learn more about the value of urban ecosystems. Getting the local community involved will help speed the expansion of the project, and give people the chance to develop basic ecological monitoring skills."
The Dudley Canal Tunnels were built in the eighteenth century to transport limestone from the Earl of Dudley's mines beneath the hills surrounding the Black Country. The project began in 1778 with Lord Ward's tunnel - the world's first underground canal tunnel.
The mines and tunnels were abandoned at the beginning of the twentieth century, but since 1973 parts of the network have been reopened after restoration by the Dudley Canal Trust. For more information on the tunnels, see www.dudleycanaltrust.org.uk.
With a legspan of 5cm, the Cave spider, Meta menardi, is the second largest spider found in the United Kingdom (the largest is the raft spider). Adult cave spiders are photophobic, so usually go un-noticed by humans. The young spiders, however, are strongly attracted to light, thought to be an evolutionary adaptation which ensures the spread of the species to new areas.