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Spider lab at ASU's West campus frightens, then educates

October 09, 2009
“Along came a spider,
And sat down beside her,
And frightened Miss Muffett away.”

            Little Miss Muffett, Anonymous

(Editor’s Note: No spiders were harmed in the telling of this story. As the research being conducted is behavioral, it is, as professor Chad Johnson notes, “important we keep them alive.”)

Little Miss Muffett wouldn’t stand a chance in Chad Johnson’s classroom. Being “frightened away” is not an option in the “spider lab” at Arizona State University’s West campus where Johnson is an assistant professor in the New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences. The lab, after all, is home to thousands of highly venomous Latrodectus hesperus, or Western Black widow spiders.

Spiders. The iconic Halloween creature lives, breeds, cannibalizes its own, and serves as a learning tool for Johnson and his student research assistants, many of whom overcome their fears of spiders simply by getting closer to the eight-legged crawlers and climbers.

Johnson, who joined the faculty in New College’s Division of Mathematical and Natural Sciences in 2006, is well known and well published when it comes to spiders. His research has appeared in such leading journals as Animal Behaviour, Behavioral Ecology, Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, and Ethology, and has captured the interest of his students, who can be found counting, feeding, poking and caring for his roomful of black widows on the third floor of the Classroom Lab/Computer Classroom building.

The research Johnson and his students are conducting focuses on how spiders make a living in urban and desert environments. In particular, one ongoing study focuses on the cannibalistic tendencies of spiderlings and how a mother’s body condition might impact her offspring’s rate of cannibalism. It’s a tangled web, indeed, for the young ones, born as many as 250 to a single egg sac. They're brothers and sisters who don’t seem to hesitate before dining on one another.

But first, student researchers must leave their fears at the door.

“I think spiders are frightening to some people because they are so foreign,” says Johnson, who earned his Ph.D. in biology at the University of Kentucky. “They have all those legs, and it is mysterious who they are and what they are. They come out at night, and that plays into people’s fears.

“The more you learn about spiders, the less apprehension you have. Personally, I’m more afraid of snakes, because I don’t understand them.”

For graduate assistants Patricia Trubl and Lindsay Miles, their fears began – like most – at an early age, but have since been allayed as they get up-close and personal with Latrodectus hesperus.

“(Spiders) used to scare the bejeezus out of me,” says Miles, who received her B.S. in biology at ASU last May. “They crawl, and when they get on you, it’s creepy. They bite, which is a health danger. I used to jump out of the way of spiders.”

So how did she come to work in Johnson’s lab, meticulously working a small paint brush around mature adult black widows as large as 15 millimeters in length and 600 milligrams in weight, while gathering more data on their feeding habits?

“(Johnson) said in class one day, ‘I work with black widows and I need volunteers.’"

Her start was designed to ease her into the spiders’ makeshift world.

“I started out doing maintenance and cleaning the spider dishes,” says Miles, who already has her sights set on Ph.D. work in animal behavior following her graduate studies at the West campus. “Then I got involved with an independent study in the lab and started working with the spiders more closely, studying web building and the difference between urban- and desert-dwelling spiders.”

The research is important, she says, and tied to her future career as a research biologist.

“This helps you understand the elements of research,” she says. “You design a project, conduct the study and test it, you analyze the data, and write or publish into a peer-reviewed journal. To take research from the design stage to the publishing stage means that you, as a researcher, are able to think outside the box. It translates to, ‘I have my own ideas, and I can test my own ideas.’”

Meanwhile, Trubl started working in Johnson’s lab in 2007, and it was a close encounter of the wolf spider kind as a youngster that cemented her fear of spiders.

“I was 7 years old when I got bitten by a wolf spider. It was this big,” she says, spreading her arms out wide. “I told my mom that it had pinned me down. It was that scary. Now, logically, I know they’re not that big, but it sure seemed like it at the time.

“I think people are afraid of spiders because they don’t know them, but do know they can hurt you. Parents, too, instill a fear of spiders in you at an early age; they’re always telling you to stay away from spiders. Plus, they’re used as a scary symbol, along with witches and goblins.”

Trubl graduated with a B.S. in life sciences last May. She is currently a teacher’s assistant in a biology lab class at the Tempe campus as she works toward an M.S. in biology.

“I was terrified when I started working in the spider lab, but I didn’t let (Johnson) know,” she says. “It took me 45 minutes to catch my first spider and my hands were shaking for months. Chad told me to just relax. Finally, as I got to know the spiders I realized they are more afraid of me than I am of them; they run the other way when they see me coming. Now, I can catch a spider in 30-60 seconds.”

“This lab and the research work we are doing represent a unique opportunity for students to study and learn,” says Johnson, who visits grade school classrooms to share learning experiences utilizing his eight-legged friends. “It may sound altruistic, but this is what prepares students to take the next step, to reach the next level after graduation.

“Science has the power to explain our world to us, and animals and plants are a part of that world.  It’s important we study and know what’s around us.”

Trubl, a mother of a 5-year-old son she is teaching to respect — not fear — spiders, takes a practical approach to the research being conducted by Johnson and company.

“We live in an urban center, and black widows thrive in urban areas,” she says, counting fruit flies as they spill from a tube into a container of baby spiders. “In studying the black widow, we can understand how disturbed environments, such as urbanization, impact species for the short and long term.

“Plus, I’m interested in foraging behavior and sexual selection in invertebrate systems. Studying black widows will allow me to better prepare myself for a Ph.D. program and an eventual college teaching career where I will have my own lab.”