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Editors Note: This post was written by Aditi Joshi, a freelance science writer and a new contributor at SciStarter
As a kid, I avoided houses that had spider decorations during Halloween. Even today, I find spiders scary. Spiders add an extra ounce of spookiness to Halloween. Spiders might be scary for some, but they’ve always fascinated Dr. Paula Cushing, an arachnologist (spider biologist) at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science in Colorado.
Cushing hoped to get a better sense of what kinds of spiders existed around her and what role they play in the ecosystems of the Rocky Mountains. To do that, she needed a map of where the spiders were and what kinds of spiders exist in the area. But an area spanning 104,000 square miles has a daunting array of spider species estimated to be over 650 in number. It wasn’t something that she or a small staff or professional scientists were going to be able to do on their own. They needed help.
Earlier, a scientist named Dr. Richard Bradley had done a project in Ohio, where he had recruited volunteers to help capture and tag spiders across his state. That project was wildly successful, and sixteen years ago, Cushing decided to follow suit with the Colorado Spider Survey.
A spider survey had never been done in Colorado before Cushing. “We started from zero spider specimen vials, and today we have a collection of over 50,000 vials,” Cushing says. Survey volunteers have identified and classified specimens from the entire Rocky Mountain region even going as far as Montana.
The project has since helped scientists understand the impact of urbanization on spiders and the ecology and distribution of spiders across Colorado. But Cushing also uses the opportunity to teach locals about their environment. Every year during the spring and summer, Cushing leads spider survey trainings for teens and adults who are interested in volunteering for the survey. She’s been able to train over eight hundred people, many of whom volunteered to help the survey grab and tag spiders.
Nina Shilodon, who’s been able to take some the lessons she’s learned in Cushing’s trainings into the classrooms, says that her adopted pet spider, Blueberry, has been able to get her kids’ attention in “spider storytelling” sessions. “When Blueberry comes crawling out she’s the one that brings the fun… whether a child is fearful or fascinated, they’re interested,” Shilodon says. And “they listen when one tells them about the different hunting styles, body parts, and environments that spiders inhabit.”
Cushing says the spider survey is a great way for people to become more intimate with biodiversity “of which otherwise one would not have been aware.”
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Image Credits: Dr. Paula Cushing, Rick Teichler
Aditi Joshi, a freelance science writer, is an expert in the field of clinical psychophysiology. She holds a PhD in Human Physiology from the University of Oregon and has published several academic papers. Apart from science, she is interested in Native American art, and art history