Biology, Psychology, and… Spiders?
This is part of a mini-series highlighting student research that was presented in the University of Findlay’s 2021 Symposium for Scholarship and Creativity (SSC).
The concept of spatial recognition is something people put into practice every day, but did you know Phrynus marginemaculatus, a species of whip spider, also relies on cues from their environment to navigate? For the 2021 Symposium for Scholarship and Creativity, University of Findlay students Hannah Caram, Cecilia Robeson, and Sophia Beeler researched how these spiders use the space around them to orient themselves and if they can be directed using specified cues.
“Homing behavior is commonly seen in a variety of animals. This is when cues are used to orient an animal in space and navigate,” Robeson said. “Other invertebrates, including bees and ants, have been shown to be able to use geometric and featural cues to navigate a space.” She continued to explain “this study set out to assess how whip spiders used geometric cues to navigate to a goal location and see if there was preferential treatment in which cues, geometric or featural, were used to navigate.”
Caram said she first became interested in the research topic while taking a psychology class. “I was really excited about the opportunity, especially with the prospect of working with a species I haven’t worked with before,” she said. “I love working with exotic animals, fish, and invertebrates, so it was really fun and eye opening to do so from an academic perspective.”
During the testing process, the team conducted training trials on four whip spiders that were caught, wild, in Florida. Over the course of 15 days, the spiders completed six trials each day using either geometric or colored cue cards to direct them. The students’ poster presentation explained each trial began with the animal (spider) placed at center of the arena and were given ten minutes to find the correct shelter in training trials, or to choose a shelter by assessing the cue cards.
Once the trials were completed, the students gathered data and came to a conclusion. “Our study failed to find significant differences in the percentages of geo-correct, cue-correct, or incorrect choices compared to chance performance,” Caram said. However, the results suggest whip spiders “show promise in learning of geometric information.” Caram explained “there were some limitations discovered throughout the study, as motivation of the spiders greatly decreased over time, and we had a small sample size.”
Caram took away from the project a valuable lesson in research. “I learned that research does not always go the way you want,” she said. “Sometimes you have to reevaluate your methods and keep persevering.” Robeson noted that, in addition to the unique information she learned about whip spiders and the concept of homing, she also “learned how to conduct a study, effectively work with others on one set of data, dedicate time to a new kind of art, and analyze data and procedures to form a better study.”
The annual SSC encourages undergraduate and graduate students to share their research, creativity, and professional learning experiences with the University and the greater community. For many who participate, it’s about so much more than just a project. Research opportunities are amazing for students in just about every way. Robeson explained, “By joining a team, you are expanding your circle and making connections with those in your field. The actual procedure you conduct will add some abilities to your skillset, and the data collection as a whole is a huge responsibility that tests things like time management and critical thinking. Overall, taking on a research project or simply just being a student assistant opens your world to new people, tasks, and problems that can help build your confidence and abilities.”
“To me, research is like a small contribution to the ginormous being that is science,” said Robeson. “It is very cool to think that my efforts are lending a hand to understanding something in a new way. This was a very new experience, and a venture into the world of psychological research is one I did not think I would take. Spiders are pretty interesting, and so are the people I have met.”
This project was overseen by Vincent “Gino” Coppola, Ph.D., University of Findlay assistant professor of psychology, who has worked to shed light on whip spiders’ and homing pigeons’ unique “homing” ability. The research was conducted in collaboration with Bowling Green State University (BGSU), and supported by a National Science Foundation grant awarded to BGSU’s Dr. Dan Wiegmann, professor of biology, and Dr. Verner P. Bingman, distinguished research professor in psychology.