Teaming an enthusiastic scientist with a group of keen Arnhem Land schoolboys has resulted in the discovery of an array of new creepy crawlies.

Story By Hamish Townsend

On the north coast of Arnhem Land is an indigenous community called Maningrida. An hour’s drive from Maningrida is an outstation called Kolorbidahdah and a little way from there is a river called Cadell. Standing in this river is Dr Robert Raven, spider expert with the Queensland Museum. He is surrounded by a group of local high-school science students and is explaining that around him could be up to 300 species of spiders, never before studied. Robert, who has devoted his life to the study of spiders, exudes a contagious excitement.
His pupils charge off into the bush under instructions to gather as many species as possible. “Careful guys, we want them intact,” Robert says. The Maningrida Community Education Centre has invited Robert to assist the senior boys with a high-school science project. It’s part of the Year 12 Contemporary Issues in Science subject in which students are studying the diversity and abundance of spiders in burnt and bush environments. The group has begun to fan out looking for evidence of small burrows and trapdoors.
The connection between Robert Raven and Maningrida began in 2005 when the school started a science class for senior students. With no facilities or resources, teacher Mason Scholes decided to use whatever was to hand, which in this case meant the outdoors and the boys’ natural inclination to collect creepy crawlies.
Mason had worked in national parks but he didn’t know a lot about spiders, outside of a study he conducted as an undergraduate at Southern Cross University, so he called the Brisbane-based scientist. Excited by a school that was encouraging such study, Robert gave Mason details of how to catch and keep samples and offered to scientifically identify them. Months later the astonished doctor was informing the boys they had discovered 18 new species of spider. “It was so exciting, I couldn’t believe it … this is a new world here,” Robert says. “These guys are real discoverers… We’re breaking new ground. Where have these spiders come from? Are they Asian? Are they Australian? Are they a mixture of both?”
The boys (they are all boys) are the usual mix – some keenly interested, some easily distracted and some just enjoying days out of the classroom. Daniel Balung Campion’s family are traditional owners of this country and members of the Rembarranga tribe. His enthusiasm is doubled by effectively doing serious science in his own backyard. “We learnt about all different names for spiders and all the different species,” he says. “My uncle and some of the elders, that’s their dreaming, the spiders. So I went to ask them about collecting them and they said, go for it.”

This story excerpt is from Issue #54

Outback Magazine: Aug/Sep 2007