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Arachnid Drama: Biologist Eileen Hebets Decodes Bizarre Mating and Communication Maneuvers of the Eight Legged

For biologist Dr. Eileen Hebets, science communication often takes on an extra challenge. When sharing details about the animals she studies, some people squirm, others tell her if they see spiders or scorpions, they kill them with a rolled-up newspaper or a shoe.

Spider expert Dr. Eileen Hebets pictured smiling, with spider on her hand. Photo by Craig Chandler.
Dr. Eileen Hebets. Photo by Craig Chandler.

But the University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor has plenty of intriguing stories to counter the misinformation and stereotypes that surround these mysterious creatures. The 2019 AAAS Fellow can engage even the most squeamish people, as she relates the grace and beauty of some spider species, and reveals captivating details about others’ bizarre mating and survival rituals, from bondage to cannibalism.

“When the mother of one of my son's soccer teammates first met me, she said ‘I'm terrified of spiders.’ And [now] she has started texting me pictures of spiders asking what they are, which is amazing given her initial adverse reaction to my job and my research,” Hebets says.

It all could have ended up differently. About 27 years ago, as an undergraduate at Albion College in Michigan, Hebets was on track to be an entomologist. But her mentor, Dr. Gail Stratton, and a summer field study in Mississippi hooked her on these invertebrates and how they communicate.

“As a young college student… I quickly realized that I could ask broad, interesting, relevant questions while still contributing basic natural history to a group of organisms that we really don't know a whole lot about,” she says.

One of her jobs that summer was to videotape the animals’ courtship displays and communication behaviors in a lab. For the young student, the interactions were complex and vivid.

“It was completely silent except for the sound that the spiders were making because we were recording their sounds and it was being played in the room,” she recalls. “When a male was not particularly successful or a female is feeling a little feisty and she would lunge at him and attack him, I would literally jump. I was in their world 100%.”

Later, while working on her Ph.D. in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Arizona, Hebets serendipitously discovered that some Amblypygids can breathe underwater for long stretches. Amblypygids (Order Amblypygi), are close relatives of the arachnids, but they don't have venom, and they don't spin silk. She was setting up a habitat for some specimens from the Florida Keys in her laboratory. To try to position one male to better videotape him, she put more water in its container, expecting the animal to stay on top of the limestone rock inside.  “But he fell into the water and started moving around. And so, I started a stopwatch and he stayed under for 35 minutes,” says Hebets.

Her first hypothesis was that they were bringing air down with them, which some beetles can do by trapping air under their wings. Hebets discovered the Amblypygids were using plastrons, waterproof but breathable structures, to breathe underwater, sometimes for hours. In other words, the Amblypygids have their own naturally occurring version of Gore-Tex.

On another front, Hebets’ team is still unearthing details about the dramatic and deadly rituals that accompany the mating of dark fishing spiders (Dolomedes tenebrosus).

“The males are much, much smaller than the females. And as soon as they transfer sperm to the female, these males just curl up, and eventually, their heart stops beating and they die. It happens 100% of the time. So these males sacrifice themselves to mate with these females. Then the female plucks the male, who is left hanging from her genitalia, and consumes him. That is just one of those evolutionary puzzles that I love,” Hebets says.

Hebets is now examining whether the males use some form of hydraulics to transfer sperm. 

My hypothesis is that they are doing it with such force probably because there's sperm competition among males and they're trying to get as many sperm as they can in, that as a by-product, they don't have enough hemolymph in their body to keep circulation going,” she says.

Spider up close. Photo by Craig Chandler.
Spider up close. Photo by Craig Chandler.

Spiders get a lot of attention at Halloween, when they are unceremoniously lumped with other “scary stuff” like ghosts, witches, and vampires. But Hebets says other cultures are much kinder to these invertebrates.

 “Spiders and scorpions both actually show up quite a bit in mythology and fables. With spiders, they're not always negative. In fact, often, it's a mother figure, it's a nurturing figure. There's creativity associated with it,” says Hebets.

Along with teaching and research on spiders, Hebets has run summer camps, and a National Science Foundation funded program called Eight-Legged Encounters. The outreach helps youngsters reignite their interest in nature.

“I absolutely love these animals. They have provided for me a whole career's worth of excitement and discovery and questions, and I know that I could never answer them all in my lifetime. So I want other people to experience that, “ Hebets says.

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