Biology student shows that spiders can be social

by Jeff Samoray, Published March 03, 2012

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Sarah Schrader

For most people, spiders are a creepy nuisance they’d rather not encounter. But for Sarah Schrader, spiders are an endless source of fascination—especially tarantulas.

“There aren’t many people who feel comfortable around spiders, but just because you can’t cuddle with them doesn’t mean we should ignore them,” says Schrader, a master’s student in EMU’s biology department with a concentration in ecology and organismal biology. “Tarantulas exhibit very interesting social behaviors.”

Since August, Schrader and Cara Shillington, associate professor of biology, have been researching two African tarantula species: the Tanzanian Dwarf Chestnut and the Cameroon Red Baboon Spider. The study examines social interactions during feeding periods within both species and monitoring those behaviors as the spiders mature. A generous $2,400 grant from Women in Philanthropy at EMU supports the project.

Scientists have documented the social behaviors of many animal groups, but there is scant data on tarantulas. Schrader and Professor Shillington hope their observations will contribute to our knowledge of how the species evolved.

“We’ll have a better idea of how communal living arose in tarantulas,” says Schrader, who conducts her research in EMU’s Aquatic Ecology Laboratory. “You don’t normally see communal behavior in predators, and it’s not something found within all tarantula species. But it’s interesting to see them feed without driving their siblings away. We want to determine just how communal tarantulas are.”

Schrader has about 84 tarantulas for the study. Every 30 minutes or so, she scans the cages to observe their positions, feeding patterns and other behaviors. Things get especially hairy during feeding time.

“When the dwarf species decide to feed, they really pounce on the crickets,” Schrader says. “Because those behaviors happen so quickly, we’re going to use some grant funds to purchase high-definition video cameras. Then we’ll be able to review each step of the feeding process.”

Besides communal living, you might be surprised to learn that tarantulas can exhibit other human-like traits.

“They can do some unexpected things,” Schrader says. “Some cuddle while others share caring for their young. Most people don’t associate maternal care with spiders. I’m really excited to see what else we learn about each species as the tarantulas mature.”

After graduating, Schrader wants to pursue a doctorate and become a professor so she can continue her research and share her enthusiasm for tarantula biology with students.

“I think there’s nothing better than showing people that ‘creepy crawlies’ are very interesting animals and an important part of the world,” she says.

Geoff Larcom


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