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Research into spiders that can count among Marsden-funded University of Canterbury projects

03 November 2021

What will we do with the knowledge that spiders can count and make calculated decisions?


Dr Fiona Cross is the lead researcher in a project to determine whether salticid (jumping) spiders have a cognitive understanding of numbers. Here Dr Cross looks for spiders in Kenya.

It sounds like the start of a sci-fi movie, but really it’s the focus of a University of Canterbury research project that’s been awarded $926,000 in the latest Te Pūtea Rangahau a Marsden, the Marsden Fund announced today.

Spider counts photo by Dr Fiona Cross Spider counts photo by Dr Fiona Cross

The project, which will see Dr Fiona Cross investigate the level of ability salticid (jumping) spiders have to understand numbers, is one of 13 University of Canterbury-led projects awarded Marsden funding. This includes three Fast-Start grants which support early career researchers to develop independent research and build their research career in Aotearoa.

Along with jumping spiders, the University of Canterbury-funded research projects, awarded $9.5million collectively, tackle wide-ranging themes, including sustainable body disposal, speech and language as more than the spoken word, the evolution of marine birds, and how gaining a better understanding of seismic activity will impact future seismic hazard and risk predictability in New Zealand and globally.

Professor Ian Wright Tumu Tuarua Rangahau | Deputy Vice-Chancellor Research and Innovation is pleased to see the number and scope of University of Canterbury research projects to gain funding in the latest round.

“It is pleasing to see the variety and relevance of University of Canterbury research that has been funded in this round. It further demonstrates the importance of the research our academics are doing for the future of New Zealanders and people around the globe.

“I am especially happy to see research into speech and language coming through in this funding round. The University of Canterbury is ranked in the top 100 globally for linguistics and computational linguistics* and this funding provides more opportunity for our researchers and PhD students to further excel in this field,” he says.

University of Canterbury’s Dr Forrest Panther is a recipient of a Fast-Start Grant ($360,000). His research will explore word grammar of Te Reo Māori with the aim of understanding dialect variations, and over time changes and aspects of Te Reo that have been lost – fundamental to helping us better understand who we are.

Marsden grants are to support excellent research in the humanities, science, social sciences, mātauranga, mathematics, and engineering – with a focus on helping us to better understand who we are and discover solutions to society’s most pressing challenges.

Te Pūtea Rangahau a Marsden is managed by Royal Society Te Apārangi on behalf of the New Zealand Government with funding from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment.

*University of Canterbury is ranked 92 in the world in the subject area of Linguistics – QS subject rankings 2021

Marsden funded University of Canterbury researcher-led projects announced today

Marsden Fund Fast-Start grants

  • Dr Forrest Panther - Understanding the Nature of Word Grammar Through Te Reo Māori (360,000)
  • Dr Robin Lee - Creating a physics-based understanding of the spatial correlation of earthquake-induced ground motions in regions of complex geology ($360,000)
  • Dr Hao Ran Lai - Understanding when and why predictions succeed or fail for species distributions ($360,000)
  • Te Pūtea Rangahau a Marsden
  • Dr Donald Derrick - Multi-sensory speech perception and syllable structure ($839,000)
  • Associate Professor Ruth McManus - The Greening of Death in Aotearoa: Co-designing sustainability adaptations in body disposal ($824,000)
  • Associate Professor Kevin Watson - Do patterns of covariation in speech carry social meaning? ($659,000)
  • Professor Brendon Bradley - Accelerating the advent of physics-based ground-motion simulation for seismic hazard analysis ($916,000)
  • Professor Martin Allen with Principal Investigator Professor Roger Reeves - Thinking outside the square! Discovering the design rules for a new class of highly-functional nanomaterials. ($904,000)
  • Associate Professor Alex Gavryushkin - Training natural language models to understand genomics and study gout in Māori and Pacific populations ($685,000)
  • Professor Antony Fairbanks - And now for something radically different; new reactions of unprotected sugars in aqueous solution ($921,000)
  • Dr Vanesa de Pietri - Avian diversity in the aftermath of the Cretaceous-Paleogene (K/Pg) mass extinction: Zealandia as a hub for the evolution of marine birds. ($925,000)
  • Dr Fiona Cross - Eight legs and a mind for numbers ($926,000)
  • Professor John Dalrymple-Alford - Bifurcating neurons and the thalamic control of memory ($839,000)

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