Aug. 15, 2002
CONTACT: Carol Anderson


EDITOR'S NOTE: Halloween is just around the corner and what better way to provide an interesting twist on a traditionally scary icon.


YPSILANTI - They're black and furry and have a few more legs than man's best friend, but unlike the dog, the tarantula's image is in need of some public relations.

Cara Shillington, assistant professor of biology at Eastern Michigan University, is trying to change the negative image through her course, Introduction to Biology for Non-Majors.

"I'm working on overcoming people's fear of spiders and improving the tarantula's image. The more you know about spiders, the less fearful you are of them," Shillington said.

The tarantulas and other spiders at the lab are not the monster-size, scary creatures depicted in Hollywood movies such as "Eight-Legged Freaks," said Shillington, who is horrified with the movie's trailer, "Let the squashing begin!"

Among the 15 different species of tarantulas in her lab are the Pink Toes, Curly Hair, Red Rump, Salmon Pink, Indian Ornamental and Goliath Birdeater.

Shillington's research involves work with animals, especially tarantulas, and how they interact with their environment. Tarantulas are mysterious, she said, because not many people are researching them.

She said tarantulas are very docile and will walk right over your flat hand - just don't drop them. Their abdomen is very soft and can be damaged by falling. Since their blood doesn't clot, they can bleed to death.

Spiders often get a bad rap because people interpret their look to be menacing. When someone has a bite they can't identify, it's always a spider bite, said Shillington. Actually, "their venom isn't deadly to humans. It's like a bee sting. I don't know of anyone dying of a tarantula bite," she said.

Tarantulas can be helpful by eating pests that harm crops or bother humans. Once a tarantula came to her rescue - it grabbed a wasp in mid-air that was threatening to sting her.

"Tarantulas are not choosey eaters. They'll eat anything they can subdue," said Shillington.

After capturing food, they paralyze their prey and pump digestive enzymes into it, turning the captured food source into a milkshake that they suck into their system. Shillington feeds her 45 lab spiders some 3,000 crickets each month, although tarantulas can survive for up to two years without food.

Like most children, Shillington didn't like bugs. However, a college friend of hers had a Pink Toe tarantula (furry black with eight pink toes) and Shillington began to learn more about them. Not long after, she owned five.

While there is a novelty in keeping a tarantula as a pet, Shillington doesn't recommend them as pets because they don't move much and kids get bored with them.

Shillington has two bachelor of science degrees in computer engineering and zoology as well as a master's degree in zoology from Washington State University and a doctorate in zoology from Oklahoma State University.

Shillington will continue her work with tarantulas in Mexico next May. She'll research search tactics males use to find females; how the environment influences their activity; and why adult males have a higher metabolic rate than females and when that change occurs.

"This is basic science. I'm studying about the world around us. Everyone wants to know what it means to them. There's no connection, but it's (her research) still important," said Shillington. "The more we find out, the more it may apply to us."