What does it take to understand spiders? False eyelashes, capes and face paint

In an arena that looks like something straight out of Pokémon, two spiders square off.

The male darts to the left, scuttles forward, then jumps backward, catching the interest of a female spider in the arena. The female advances, patting the brightly colored male. Cara McDermott watches closely, because the male dancing around the arena is her creation — and he’s under her control.

A real spider, shown in foreground, navigates an arena designed to evaluate interactions with fake ones. Photo by Brianne Lehan/UF Photography

Using a 3D printer and a lot of patience with a paintbrush, McDermott created 60 models of these tiny, colorful creatures and the arena where they’re interacting for her undergraduate honors thesis to test the models’ potential as replacements for live spiders in behavioral experiments.

A former music major who played trumpet in the Gator Marching Band, McDermott typifies the the blend of art and science that drives discovery in Lisa Taylor’s lab. Taylor, a behavioral ecologist in the entomology department of the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, looks to the arts to reframe our perceptions of spiders and to further our understanding of how their appearance, from dazzling colors to lush eyelashes, influence their behavior.

Lisa Taylor in the field, collecting termites to feed her spiders.

Taylor’s lifelong interests in animals and art developed into a fascination with how spiders use colors in courtship rituals. At UF, her interest drew an arty set of colleagues, including a lab manager, Samm Epstein, who paints pet portraits on the side. It wasn’t long before they were collaborating on a spider coloring book.

“When you study spider colors, you get an assortment of creative people who want to be involved,” Taylor said.

The coloring book, available for free download, is part of the lab’s mission to help people see the beauty and importance of spiders, which eat household pests like ants, flies, mosquitoes and roaches and are not secretly lying in wait to bite you on the face while you sleep.

“They’re great to have around,” Taylor said. “The average spider in your house or yard is not going to hurt you.”

If you’re a male spider looking for love, however, you’re not so lucky. Female spiders in the 6,000-species family that Taylor studies have a habit of snacking on their mates when the deed is done. The stripes some male spiders have on their faces might have evolved as a defense, Taylor says. To find out, she and her students turn to their paintbrushes.

Taylor picks up one of the larger spider models, which is as big as her hand and thankfully not to scale. She points at its red-and-white striped face.

“This pattern is really common. We think one of the reasons they have those color patterns is to avoid getting attacked by females when they’re courting. Females have an aversion to attacking things that are red-and-white striped or black-and-white striped, because prey items that are striped like that are toxic. We think that, for males, it’s a way to cheat and make themselves look not very appealing to eat.”

By covering up or adding stripes to the live spiders, then observing interactions between them, Taylor and her students get clues to coloration’s influence. That requires putting makeup on a tiny spider, which is where doctoral student Ellen Humbel comes in. Humbel uses “really nice, non-toxic liquid eyeliner” to cover their stripes, then watches what happens: Will the females be more likely to eat a stripe-less male? If so, what can that tell us about what attracts and repels spiders and other insects?

Doctoral student Ellen Humbel holds one of the Taylor lab’s resident spiders. Photo by Brianne Lehan/UF Photography

Some of the lab’s spider makeovers include false eyelashes. Doctoral student Laurel Leitzenmayer studies a species where some of the males sport three tufts of hair on their heads (as seen below in the coloring book). She’s hoping to find out why, which involves adding eyelash extensions to tuftless males to see how their new hairstyle changes their interactions with females.

Doctoral student Mike Vickers’ research involves outfitting termites with superhero-style capes. Vickers adds colors to termites’ white bodies to see if spiders will be tricked into thinking they’re poisonous and avoid eating them. There are two ways to make over a termite: Paint it by hand with the tip of a toothpick, or glue on a tiny paper cape that covers its abdomen. Termites are smaller than a grain of rice, so both methods require steady hands and oceans of patience. Vickers prefers painting.

He recently published his findings, which showed that color alone doesn’t protect termites from hungry spiders, but when used in concert with an odor that some bugs use to repel predators, red coloring did offer some protection. (He also tested other colors and patterns to ensure that the paint itself wasn’t causing the change.) Understanding how color and odor work together can help us gain insight into other animals’ behavior, and can even be applied in disciplines like physics, Vickers says.

All of these studies help reveal the processes that gave rise to the stunning biodiversity of spiders, Taylor says, which brings us back to the models in McDermott’s spider Pokémon arena. After volunteering as a spider caretaker in Taylor’s lab, McDermott, now a master’s student studying physical therapy, understood how demanding it can be to keep colonies of live spiders at the ready. Replacing some live spiders with models could streamline future research.

Her project, supported by the National Science Fdn’s Research Experience for Undergraduates, involved creating micro-CT scans of the half-inch-long spiders, which she then 3D-printed at UF’s Fab Lab before painstakingly trimming and painting them.

Cara McDermott created these model spiders as part of her honors thesis with support from the NSF’s Research Experience for Undergraduates program. Below: McDermott uses a magnet to move her creations around the arena. Photos by Brianne Lehan/UF Photography

And the verdict? In the study, the savvier spiders weren’t too impressed with the models.

“Some of the males would do a courtship display, which shows promise. But other spiders would walk over the model like a pebble,” McDermott said. “There was no fooling them.”

Adding chemical and vibrational signals to the models might help, she says. When combining art with spider sex, sometimes you have to go back to the drawing board.

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