Spiders of North America: An Identification Manual. Darrell Ubick, Pierre Paquin, Paula E. Cushing, and Vince Roth, eds.; Nadine Dupérré, illus. American Arachnological Society ( www.americanarachnology.org), 2005. 377 pp., illus. $57.00 (ISBN 9780977143900 paper).
Very few of us harbor ambivalent feelings toward spiders. We admire their spinning work and thank them for killing the pesky fly, or find them repugnant and scary, sometimes to the extent of phobia. A decidedly nonarachnophobic organization, the American Arachnological Society (AAS), has published a remarkably thorough and useful manual that helps organize the incredible diversity of spider families and genera of the continental United States and Canada. Spiders of North America: An Identification Manual is the first edition of a guide that will serve the professional biologist as well as the motivated amateur; it will become an invaluable tool for those who want to answer the often not-so-simple question, “What spider is this?”
The manual is the outgrowth of a project initiated by the late Vincent Roth (1924–1997), who, with the help of many collaborators, published three editions of a guide to the spider genera of North America (Roth 1994). Roth's publications and various editions of Kaston's identification manuals (1978, 1981) were what researchers in North America used for decades as the initial starting point to identify an unknown specimen. These served us well, but arachnologists have made significant changes in the road map of spider taxonomy in the decade since Roth's latest edition, revising genera and many common families, and restructuring the way families are organized to reflect phylogenetic relationships.
In 2001 the AAS appointed a committee to revise Roth's third edition; the result was not a fourth, but a substantially changed and expanded version that clearly is a new publication. Over 30 taxonomists and three illustrators have created a guide to the spider genera of North America north of Mexico that will be an indispensable tool to the increasing number of ecologists, ethologists, and physiologists who are investigating spiders because of their ubiquity, their fascinating and diverse behaviors, and the simple fact that, in terms of species numbers and relative biomass, they are major players among invertebrate terrestrial predators. Those of us who have worked with schoolteachers and have fielded questions from the public realize that many nonbiologists also want to put a name on the spider that intrigues or frightens them. Professional biologists, amateur naturalists, teachers, and their students all may want different answers—some simply to the family level, others to the level of genus and species—but anyone interested in the spider diversity of North America (and most of northern Mexico) will find Spiders of North America an indispensable guide.
The first chapter, by Paula Cushing, presents an excellent introduction to spider anatomy and biology, techniques for collecting and rearing spiders, and how to maintain a collection. In chapter 2, Jonathan Coddington gives a comprehensive overview of spider phylogeny and classification after a valuable introduction to the theory and methods of constructing phylogenies. Chapter 3, by Darrell Ubick, is a key to 68 spider families that directs the investigator to the appropriate family chapter written by one or more of the authors. Each of these family chapters includes the common name; the number of genera and species in North America; a drawing of a representative specimen; a description of similar families with which the specimen might be confused; a summary of diagnostic features, followed by specific, quantitative descriptions of defining characters; a summary of the family's natural history; and the history of the family's taxonomy, including past revisions and currently unresolved taxonomic problems. This section also warns the reader if there is insufficient information to construct a complete and foolproof key to some genera in the family. A dichotomous key to the genera completes each family chapter. Along with the genus name at the end of the key appears valuable information on the genus's geographic distribution, the number of described and undescribed species, and, particularly important for the professional biologist, references to taxonomic publications describing the species in the genus.
The guide does not end with the keys. The chapter by H. D. Cameron is a 55-page, detailed summary of the derivation of the names of all the North American spider genera—an entertaining etymological spider dictionary complete with historical notes on the naming of the genus as well as a discussion of the derivations from Greek, Latin, and other tongues. This chapter is followed by a brief guide to pronunciation of the families and common genera. Students often stumble over taxonomic names, frequently asking their professors, whom they naively view as experts, questions such as, “How do you pronounce Argiope?” Now we have an updated guide that makes us all experts, and that also lists common alternative pronunciations, no doubt introduced by some of us ecologists ignorant of the “strictly correct” pronunciations first given by Comstock (1940).
Several features make Spiders of North America a powerful guide to spider diversity. The numerous detailed and beautifully executed illustrations by Nadine Dupérré are simply remarkable. They are not only useful scientific illustrations but also works of art. The detailed, illustrated glossary is an invaluable help, and includes general ecological and evolutionary terminology as well as descriptions and illustrations of anatomical features. A major strength of the book is the detailed bibliography, which allows the reader to access the original taxonomic literature in order to identify the specimen to species. A small but important feature: The book has a large spiral binding, which makes it easy to keep flat when working through the keys.
Can the manual be improved? Certainly there are some features that could be added. For example, among the numerous pages associated in the index with each family name, the page associated with the family chapter is given in bold; it would have been helpful if the page or pages in the key that refer to each genus were also highlighted—a simple oversight perhaps, and by no means a major one. In fact, the index is quite complete and includes references to individual species. Some researchers will grumble over the omission of a key to erigonine females (the Erigoninae is a subfamily of the species-rich Linyphiidae). However, the authors point out that currently there is no simple way to separate erigonine and nonerigonine females, and the manual does have a key to erigonine males. The manual points out problems such as these, and also explains when generic classifications differ from the World Spider Catalog (Platnick 2005).
This outstanding guide to spider identification is a prodigious work of love by a large group of arachnologists. The manual will evolve with ongoing research on spider phylogeny and species descriptions, and in response to constructive comments from users, which the editors encourage (via e-mail to Ubick at firstname.lastname@example.org). Thus what started over three decades ago as a group project inspired by Vincent Roth will continue as a group effort. In this spirit, my review has been aided immensely by input from members of my research group (Klaus Birkhofer, Mark Bostrom, Alberto Castro-Gil, and Erin Hladilek) who have used Spiders of North America to identify specimens.