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#OTGYpsi: EMU biology students prepare to observe tarantulas in their natural habitat next summer


Concentrate Ann Arbor

Rylee Barnsdale's Feature Article: EMU students' tarantula research in Colorado breaks new ground

Dr. Cara Shillington

EMU Today: EMU graduate student mines valuable tarantula data in the Colorado desert


Rylee Barnsdale: You're listening to 89 one WEMU. Welcome to On the Ground Ypsi. A program created in partnership by WEMU and Concentrate Media. We are highlighting the stories of those improving and making a difference in the Ypsilanti community. I'm your host, Concentrate reporter Rylee Barnsdale. A group of student researchers at Eastern Michigan University's biology department is making strides in the scientific community through their study of tarantulas. And they want more people to know that spiders aren't as scary as many of us may think that they are. With me in the studio is undergrad biology student Spencer Poscente, one of the researchers working with EMU's biology professor, Dr. Cara Shillington, to find out more about these animals. Spencer, thanks so much for being here.

Spencer Poscente: Yeah, no problem. It's a pleasure.

Rylee Barnsdale: So, I want to start our conversation with a question you've probably heard a thousand times before. Why tarantulas? What about these critters draws you in and fascinates you?

Spencer Poscente: Tarantulas are very impressive. You know, they get a bad rap. They're scary. They're kind of spooky, but they're just impressive predators. And since I was a kid, I knew it was going to be animals, and I didn't really hone in on anything arachnid-related until, really, I got to Eastern. When I grew up in Vegas, we had scorpions, tarantulas, spiders, brown recluse, black widows, all the big names that you hear about. And I really like Spider-Man. But, otherwise, it was always animals. And then when I got here, I met Cara. I had a class with her, and I saw how much she really enjoyed what she did and how much of the tarantula's life still needed to be studied. And there's just plenty to do.

Rylee Barnsdale: So, when you came to Michigan, there was probably a little bit of a learning curve, right? You know, you didn't have to check your shoes every morning for scorpions and the like.

Spencer Poscente: Yeah, definitely. You know, we get silver fish out here, earwigs, but no scorpions or tarantulas.

Rylee Barnsdale: You know, through your work with Dr. Shillington, who has an extensive background in studying tarantulas, what has that work sort of looked like? What about tarantulas have you learned through that work that has kind of surprised you?

Spencer Poscente: That they are--I don't want to say friendly because they don't look at you and say, "Man, that's my dad. That's my mom. We're buds." But, you know, you can handle them. They would much rather avoid you than attack you. So, that's something I've learned, and I've grown a lot more comfortable working with the scorpions and the tarantulas, even handling them. I mean, I've learned so much from aspects of how science has performed in the greater community, how it's done on a smaller scale with something as extraneous as tarantulas or scorpions, something where people just don't know a lot about and learned a lot about the science community, how it operates and how people communicate and how the competition is laid out and how it's also collaborative and how it probably could be a little more collaborative.

Rylee Barnsdale: This is 89 one WEMU's On the Ground Ypsi. I'm Rylee Barnsdale, and I'm sitting with EMU student researcher Spencer Poscente. The work that you and the other students in the arachnid lab here at EMU are currently doing at the field site in Colorado has been going on since around 2019. Is that correct?

Spencer Poscente: Yeah. Yeah. So, it's been a few years since one of our graduate students, Dallas Hasselhuhn, was out there doing some separate work, and he found out about this field site through an article that came online. And he went down there and just saw the site. And it was so cool. From an initial description, you know, you're tripping over tarantulas in the wild, which is very special. You know, we get to see him in the lab all the time, but to see him in the actual wild in that quantity--very exciting. So, after he discovered the site, he told Cara. They all went down, took a big lab trip, and it was just really exciting. And I've seen pictures and videos and seen the data and read the papers, but more exciting to be there.

Rylee Barnsdale: Have you been out to the site yet, or are you still planning to head out there?

Spencer Poscente: Still planning to head out throughout the next summer as an undergrad and then hopefully again as a graduate student.

Rylee Barnsdale: And your fellow researcher, Bradley Allendorfer, also while on the field site, was recording the behaviors of female tarantulas--you know, specifically ones with babies. But when you do get out there in the summer, what are you hoping to study? What questions are you hoping to answer while you're out there?

Spencer Poscente: The primary questions I'm looking to answer why the tarantulas are more likely to burrow where they burrow--you know, what parameters of this little area, the dirt, the vegetation, what makes it more inhabitable than all of that area that isn't? And what leads to the greater population density of the burrow density in that area? The variation of where they live.

Rylee Barnsdale: Are those things that you've started exploring in the lab? I feel like that might be a little bit difficult to do in a lab setting.

Spencer Poscente: It is. That's what's so cool about the site. We can do a lot in the lab, and we can have it under pretty set standards. We can control basically everything we want to in the lab: the temperature, the activity. But when you're in the wild, it's not up to you. It's up to the organisms, the animals, what they want to do, the rain, the weather, just everything else in general. So, we have specimens in the lab. We have some tarantulas back there that we're studying, but we're studying them in a lab, as opposed to studying them in the field. So, we're always going to get a little bit different results than what they're actually doing in their natural habitat. There are a lot of aspects that are hard to study in the lab, but even harder to study in the field because, you know, they're living underground. They're nocturnal and tough to reach.

Rylee Barnsdale: The arachnid lab here at EMU. There's a pretty extensive collection of critters in there from the time that I got to visit. There are floor-to-ceiling Tupperware containers full of different tarantulas and other arachnids at different stages of life. What are the big differences that are going to come into play between tripping over tarantulas in a lab setting to tripping over tarantulas in the desert?

Spencer Poscente: Lack of control, I think, really is going to be that big one. When you're out in the field, you just have to roll with the flow. I've had pretty limited field work, but from what I've seen and what I've encountered, things are changing pretty rapidly. Not ideally, I suppose, but that's usually how it goes--you know, tripping over them in the field. There are certain things you can do and certain things you can't do. We don't have the the big machines that we do in the lab to bring out in the field, but you're getting them in their natural state.

Rylee Barnsdale: This is WEMU's On the Ground Ypsi. I'm chatting with EMU biology student and undergrad researcher Spencer Poscente. Spencer, I am curious. You are in your undergrad here at Eastern. You are studying arachnids, working with tarantulas, with scorpions. If all goes to plan, you're getting out into the field in Colorado this summer. What does the future look like for you right now? You know, what are you hoping to do with all of this spider knowledge once you graduate?

Spencer Poscente: The spider knowledge is pretty specific towards spiders and arachnids. But I'd like to take the knowledge from the techniques and even just the arachnid specific knowledge and apply it elsewhere. There are a lot of aspects of environmental health that kind of get neglected, and, a lot of times, it's these maybe scarier, less charismatic animals that are doing a lot of work behind the scenes. So, bringing more attention to them through education of myself and of the public, those are things that I would like to do.

Rylee Barnsdale: So, are you planning on continuing the study of tarantulas or scorpions, maybe arachnids in general, as there may be another group of invertebrates you want to start looking at or anything along those lines?

Spencer Poscente: It's all so cool. It's really hard to decide on one. You know, I'll read an article about tarantulas, and then it'll mention another animal that it encountered. And then I'll read three about that animal. There's just so much to learn and so much we don't know. So, I don't know. I couldn't give you a concise answer on that one.

Rylee Barnsdale: So, the future is looking bright, though, you would say.

Spencer Poscente: The future's looking pretty open-ended. Definitely.

Rylee Barnsdale: And I'd love to wrap up here by asking you, as someone who works with these animals pretty much every day, is there any message or piece of tarantula wisdom that you want to send out to those who maybe are afraid of spiders?

Spencer Poscente: For people that are afraid of spiders, I would just say let them do their thing. Like, I kind of said earlier that they'd much rather avoid you than attack you. And having them there is much more helpful than not having them because, otherwise, you'd be overrun by insects.

Rylee Barnsdale: I'd much rather shoo a spider out of my apartment than deal with mosquitos--more mosquitoes than I deal with now, right?

Spencer Poscente: You're going to be out at night try to hide in dark spots. So, if you see him, maybe don't step on him. That's a big one.

Rylee Barnsdale: Well, thank you so much, Spencer, for coming in today to teach us a little bit more about tarantulas. Hopefully, someone out there listening is maybe a little bit less afraid now. Again, this was Spencer Poscente, an undergrad research student from EMU's arachnid lab. Thanks, Spencer.

Spencer Poscente: No problem. Thank you.

Rylee Barnsdale: For more information on today's topic and links to the full article, visit our website at wemu.org. On the Ground Ypsi is brought to you in partnership with Concentrate Media. I'm Rylee Barnsdale, and this is your community NPR station, 89 one WEMU FM Ypsilanti.

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Concentrate Media's Rylee Barnsdale is a Michigan native and longtime Washtenaw County resident. She wants to use her journalistic experience from her time at Eastern Michigan University writing for the Eastern Echo to tell the stories of Washtenaw County residents that need to be heard.
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