September 21, 2010

A Love Affair … With a Spider

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Cannibalistic, predatory and voracious: three words about spiders are enough to make anyone suffer from arachnophobia.  Cornell’s resident “spider lady”, Prof. Linda Rayor, entomology, actually finds them quite lovable.  She considers herself an “arachnophile” – or spider lover.

Her recent seminar, “Adaptations for Living with Cannibals,” was just one of over 500 presentations she and her student “speakers’ bureau” have given as part of Rayor’s Spider Outreach Program, “Eight-legged Ambassadors for Science Education,” which began in 1998. The program has grown since then, and now features a new set of presentations on the natural history, ecology and behavior of arthropods, birds, mammals, reptiles, seeds and adaptations.

Rayor currently studies the unique interactions between cannibalistic social spiders, their patterns of communication, and the relationships between mother spiders and their offspring. At the seminar, she discussed the behavioral, historical and physiological differences in social and solitary Australian huntsman spiders, and emphasized that not all spiders are the predators most people expect them to be.

“Spiders are primarily solitary, readily cannibalistic and voracious predators that are the most important terrestrial predators on Earth. Yet one percent of spiders are highly social, living in large groups characterized by tolerance and cooperation. Even in the most social spider species, we’re finding that individuals must balance the many benefits of group living with the strong compulsion to eat irritating siblings.”

A recipient of the 2005 Kaplan Family Distinguished Faculty Fellow in Service-Learning Award from Cornell’s Public Service Center, Rayor has a contagious love for spiders. With her inspiring enthusiasm, Rayor can convert any arachnophobe into a spider lover, holding her eight legged friends by the end of a seminar.

Original Author: Maria Minsker