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Susquehanna University hosts meeting of spider experts

August 20, 2007

SELINSGROVE, Pa. (AP) - Spiderman was recently spotted at Susquehanna University.

Actually, about 109 spider men and women recently gathered at the university for the 31st annual meeting of the American Arachnological Society hosted by Matt Persons, associate professor of biology and one of the nation's leading spider experts.

Persons has studied spiders professionally for about 15 years, focusing on wolf spiders and their behaviors, ecology, courtship habits, maternal instincts and aggression, and how their silk draglines are used as a communication mechanism.

The "spider meeting" as he called it for short, was held over five days earlier this month at the university.

Arachnologists from across the country, Canada and even Korea came to Selinsgrove to share their research through poster sessions and oral presentations.

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"It's a chance for academics and really interested amateurs to get together and compare notes," Persons said.

Persons also said that eight Susquehanna University students who have been studying the wolf spiders with him were presenting.

"The conference feels more like a family reunion," Persons said, saying that so few people study arachnology that those in the field might not know each other personally, but know each other through their research.

Persons' lab at the university contains hundreds of wolf spiders - hogna helluo, the larger ones, and pardosa milvina, the smaller ones - most kept in individual containers and sorted by gender and whether they will be used for mating purposes or not. There also are several tanks of crickets, which Person spends about $3,000 a year on to feed the spiders. The "lab mascot" is a tarantula, and as a pet, Persons has an amblypygid, also known as a tailless whip scorpion.

Since his studies focus largely on exploring the behaviors of wolf spiders, Persons said they often videotape the spiders to observe behavioral patterns. An interesting note about wolf spiders, Persons said, is that they can "watch television," meaning studies have shown they respond to videotapes of other spiders, thinking the spider on the screen is real.

"For me, the most shocking thing is how sophisticated their communications are," Persons said, saying the spiders communicate through seismic vibrations, courtship songs, chemical signals and even through their silk draglines.

From draglines alone, Persons said, wolf spiders can tell how big the spider is that produced the draglines, what it ate recently, how hungry it is and how recently it produced the lines, to name a few things.

A Michigan native, Persons completed his undergraduate work at Albion College, and received his master's and doctoral degrees at the University of Cincinnati. He also completed postdoctoral work at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., and at Miami University. He has been with Susquehanna University for eight years.

Kristen Shimmel, a rising senior from Clearfield majoring in biology, has been researching the wolf spiders with Persons for two years.

"The opportunity was there and once I got into the lab, I was so glad I had the opportunity," Shimmel said of studying with Persons.

Alex Sweger, a rising sophomore from Etters majoring in biology, began his work with Persons about a year ago.

"I just like working with actual animals and doing stuff with behaviors," Sweger said.

Both were attending the conference to meet arachnologists they've read about and studied through their research.

Persons said he was excited to see a former teacher of his, the one who actually inspired him to begin professionally studying the wolf spider.

"I thought, 'How do I get your job?"' he said.

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