Surveying the oft-snubbed (and very cool) spider with citizen scientists

  • Taylor Briggs, age 24, a bakery supervisor at Whole Foods who plans to go back to school for invertebrate zoology, shows off the specimens she captured while spider collecting at the Bluff Lake Nature Center in Denver.

    Marian Lyman Kirst
  • Black widows -- infamous for their neurotoxic venom -- are dirt-common in the West and are one of the survey's most frequently sent-in spiders. Of the more than 42,000 known spider species worldwide, only a handful have medically important venom.

    Marian Lyman Kirst
  • How to 'eye'-dentify a spider

    Eric Parrish Illustrations Courtesy Colorado Spider Survey
  • Spider facts and myths

 

It's Saturday morning in early May at the Bluff Lake Nature Center, a modest suburban oasis in northeast Denver. An eager posse of spider hunters clusters around its intrepid leader, Paula Cushing, a petite woman with a dark braid, deep-set eyes and a fearless affection for eight-legged creatures.

"Without spiders, we'd be up to our eyeballs in insects," says Cushing, curator of invertebrate zoology at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science and director of the Colorado Spider Survey, a citizen science project aimed at chronicling the state's spider distribution and diversity. As top invertebrate predators with myriad foraging strategies, spiders play an important role in controlling insects, including common crop pests like wheat aphids. Some spiders act as pollinators; others provide key food sources for birds and reptiles. And yet spiders are some of the least-documented and most-misunderstood animals on earth.

The Colorado Spider Survey aims to provide baseline data to help scientists assess how resource development, urbanization and climate change may be affecting Colorado's spiders. Cushing conducts the survey through a series of public workshops and classes "to help nonscientists understand the scientific process and get them involved in a local research project." She teaches her students how to collect spiders in the field and how to identify the animals using features such as web shape, eye pattern and behavior. Since the survey's inception in 1999, she's trained more than 700 volunteers, who have sent her roughly 30,000 specimens from around the state.

Out at Bluff Lake, Cushing offers some hunting tips. "Think of (spider) habitat as three-dimensional," she says. "You've got the ground layer, you've got the bush, you've got the shrubs and the trees, and there are spiders living in all those layers." Meanwhile, Cushing's research assistant prepares the nets and collecting sheets the students will use to wrest spiders from the verdure.

"If you see rocks or logs, go ahead and move them and see what's underneath," Cushing says. "But don't put your fingertips all the way under; that's when you might get bitten by a black widow or centipede or scorpion."

The students, who include an environmental consultant and the manager of a cupcake shop, exchange nervous glances. Cushing smiles. Then, with the gusto and purpose of a general ordering soldiers into battle, she sends the hunters into the undergrowth. "Go to it, the trail's that-a-way. And enjoy yourself!"

On a path near the park's creek, Rebekah Thompson and Danielle Forte gleefully sweep canvas nets through budding willow thickets. For her master's project, Forte, a graduate student in museum studies at the University of Colorado, is developing a mobile phone application that will help people identify the spiders in their homes. "The more people know about spiders and their benefits," she says, the more likely they will "strip away some of the negative associations they might have" with the animals.

After about six strokes, the two women turn their nets inside out, shake the contents onto a white "beat sheet" and poke through the leafy dross. The disturbance prompts a rush of life: squirming inchworms, metallic beetles, clear-winged moths and, of course, a host of spiders, including crab spiders, jumping spiders and a single, spindly-legged long-jawed orb weaver.

"Oh! Shut … up!" Thompson says when Forte shows her the orb weaver. "That is so cool … look at the patterning." In the sunlight, the spider's pill-shaped body is a shimmering swirl of cream and gold. Forte gently scoops up the delicate creature and transfers it into a vial of alcohol. "It will be in spider heaven soon enough," she says with a sigh.

Meanwhile, Cushing makes the rounds: checking the students' progress, cooing over their finds, and inspecting vialed specimens with her trusty field glass. Around noon, she gathers her troops atop the bluff and breaks down the day's haul: "Cribellate spiders that build webs at the tips of vegetation, wolf spiders, Philodromid crab spiders," she says. "Roger collected Dysderidae -- the red louse hunters" -- all told, about 50 spiders from seven to 10 families. "It doesn't take a lot of collecting effort to get a huge amount of diversity," Cushing says. Indeed, arachnologists estimate that a single acre of grassland could be home to more than 2 million spiders.

Cushing's survey has already filled in some gaps in the scientific understanding of Colorado's spider communities. So far, Cushing and her crew have documented more than 650 spider species from 41 different families, recorded the existence of a handful of spiders not previously known from the region, and collected two species of triangle web spider that, in Colorado, seem limited to coniferous forests. What's more, Cushing estimates that five to 10 of the survey-collected species are completely new to science.

One of Cushing's goals is to use this kind of information to publish descriptions of Colorado's spider species. She also plans to use contemporary specimens and historical records to map species distributions, and analyze baseline data to determine if, in the last decade, there have been any significant shifts in the ranges or habitats of Colorado's spiders.

Back at the Museum, the students crowd into the arachnology lab and pull creature-filled vials from their pockets and backpacks. Cushing instructs the class to label each vial, specifying when and where the specimens were collected; without that information, she says, "the spiders will have died in vain." Survey volunteers will eventually catalogue the animals and add them to the Museum's growing arachnology collection.

Later, Cushing uses tweezers to remove the dripping corpse of a woodlouse hunter from a student's vial and place it under her microscope. The magnified image, like a frame from a monster movie, appears on the monitor at the front of the room. The students exclaim aloud at the animal's brick-red carapace, menacing fangs and primitive mien. This naked enthusiasm for a group of creatures so often maligned by the public is what drives the Colorado Spider Survey, a project that Cushing says "helps people understand that they too can be scientists at some level -- if they just have curiosity about the world around them."

High Country News Classifieds
  • COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT DIRECTOR
    Colorado Wild Public Lands (COWPL), based in Basalt, is an exciting nonprofit working to keep public lands open and accessible. Our growing organization is seeking...
  • BUSINESS SUPPORT ASSISTANT (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time business support assistant to provide...
  • SOCIAL MEDIA AND DIGITAL ADVERTISING SPECIALIST
    The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), Utah's largest conservation organization, has an immediate opening for a full-time Social Media and Digital Advertising Specialist. This position...
  • SPRING-FED PARCELS ON THE UPPER SAC RIVER
    Adjacent parcels above the Upper Sacramento river, near Dunsmuir. The smaller is just under 3 acres, with the larger at just under 15 acres. Multiple...
  • DEVELOPMENT COORDINATOR
    Greater Yellowstone Coalition seeks a development professional to coordinate the organization's individual giving program. The position description is available at http://greateryellowstone.org/careers Please email a letter...
  • IDAHO STATE DIRECTOR
    The Wilderness Society is seeking a full time Idaho State Director who will preferably be based in Boise, Idaho. At least 8-10 years of experience...
  • COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER AND BEARS EARS EDUCATION CENTER MANAGER
    Conservation nonprofit Friends of Cedar Mesa in Bluff, Utah is hiring for two positions. We seek a Communications Manager to execute inspiring and impactful communications...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Wilderness Volunteers Wilderness Volunteers (WV), a 24-year leader in preserving our nation's wildlands, is seeking a motivated person with deep outdoor interests to guide our...
  • HECHO POLICY AND ADVOCACY MANAGER
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • FISHERIES BIOLOGIST
    Under the direct supervision of the Director of Shoshone-Paiute Tribe's Fish, Wildlife & Parks, in coordination with the Tribal Programs Administrator and the Tribal Chairman,...
  • REGIONAL EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR NORTHERN ROCKIES, PRAIRIES & PACIFIC REGION
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation has grown into America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 53 state/territorial affiliates and more than...
  • STEWARDSHIP MANAGER
    STEWARDSHIP MANAGER Job Vacancy and Description Posted June 2, 2021: Open until filled The New Mexico Land Conservancy (NMLC) is a non-profit, regional land trust...
  • KSJD - MORNING EDITION HOST/REPORTER
    KSJD is seeking a host/reporter. Please see for www.ksjd.org for more information. EEO compliant.
  • ON THE EDGE OF CEDAR MESA/BEARS EARS
    Quiet, comfy house for rent in Bluff, Utah. Walk to San Juan River. Bike or hike to many nearby ruins and rock art sites. Beautiful...
  • CARPENTER AND LABORER WANTED.
    Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rain forest on the coast, Hike the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg meadows,...
  • PROJECT MANAGER
    Title: Project Manager Reports To: Program Director Salary Range: Negotiable; starting at $60,000 Location: Bend, OR The Deschutes River Conservancy seeks a Project Manager to...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Deschutes River Conservancy seeks a Program Director to join our dynamic team in restoring streamflow and improving water quality in the Deschutes Basin. WHO...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR - TWISPWORKS
    Established healthy nonprofit in the Methow Valley of Washington state, TwispWorks is hiring the next Executive Director. Terrific opportunity to strive for our mission to...
  • BOARD DIRECTOR
    Help us achieve our mission of promoting excellence in the professional practice of wilderness stewardship, science and education to ensure the life-sustaining benefits of wilderness....
  • TEMPORARY FULL-TIME RANCH OPERATIONS ASSISTANT
    Twin Willows Ranch in Ocate, NM is seeking to immediately fill a Temporary Full-Time employment position as Ranch Operations Assistant for Facilities, Equipment, Land, and...