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Spider Expert Susan Riechert Untangles Arachnid Behavior

Susan Riechert
AAAS Fellow Susan Riechert. Photo credit: Wilfred Post.

From cat cadavers to caterpillar carcasses, AAAS Fellow Susan Riechert, Ph.D., has faced her fair share of handling animals both dead and alive. Growing up, she would watch her mother, who worked as a nurse, care and tend to various injured animals, such as birds and squirrels in her neighborhood. “We often had many wild animals in the house being treated,” Riechert explains.

But for the behavioral ecologist, there is one animal that stands out among the rest: spiders. Riechert, a now-retired arachnologist, dedicated her career to studying spiders and their behavior, particularly the variations between species’ populations.

However, Riechert’s early love was not spiders; it was the French horn. When she went to the University of Wisconsin—Madison for her undergraduate studies, she was planning to major in music. But a case of scarlet fever when she was nine years old left her deaf in one ear, causing her to realize that the French horn was not her future. 

 “It is just sort of serendipity how things work out,” Riechert says.

Her journey as a future ecologist really took off when she attended her first advanced zoology class. The course required students to collect fish for the zoology department’s Zoological Museum at the university. But after coming too close to drowning in an attempt to seine fish from a waterway, Riechert kept to the bank of the stream where her attention was captured by something else.

“What was all over the place in the fall in Wisconsin? It was spiders,” she says.

By the end of the course, Riechert had compiled a tremendous spider collection that was featured in the museum. To expand the spider collection, the museum took her on every successive field trip, enabling Riechert to travel to places like Panama and the Galapagos Islands, even into her graduate years at the university.

Over time, the AAAS Fellow became “more interested in living things than in making a collection for a museum.” While on a field trip for the museum to the Carrizozo lava beds in New Mexico, Riechert came face to face with her favorite spider, one that she would focus on for her doctoral dissertation and study throughout the rest of her career: the grass spider, Agelenopsis aperta.

“Everywhere I could see there were these sheet webs with funnels going into the surrounding lava bed, cracks of the lava bed or in these holes that were caused by floods,” she describes. “These beautiful webs were just everywhere.” Riechert was intrigued by the system the spiders lived in — the lava beds as well as the holes in the surrounding desert grassland. She wanted to know how these arachnids handled the area’s thermal stress. The spiders were also displaying interesting behaviors — they were not clustered in huge numbers, but rather, spaced apart. 

As it turns out, Riechert’s research proved that they compete for the prime web sites and then require a certain distance to the nearest neighbor as to not interfere with food. After camping in New Mexico over the span of two years, she published her findings, titled “Games spiders play” in the journal Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, which is to this day is one of the more popular game theory papers that applies human game theory to animals.

The work got the attention of John Maynard Smith, a world-renowned evolutionary biologist known for applying game theory to evolution, who reviewed the paper pre-publication. Riechert was at the Southwestern Research Station in Portal, Arizona at the time when Maynard Smith asked her to get in touch. She was analyzing different phenotypes of the grassland spider due to gene flow between ones that inhabit riparian habitats and others in woodlands. When Riechert spoke to Maynard Smith, she remembers him saying, “You must come to England to work with me.” 

 “And so, from there my career went sky high,” says Riechert.

Throughout her profession, she has amassed many awards and recognitions. She was president of the American Arachnological Society from 1983 to 1985, the president of the Animal Behavior Society in 1997, and was elected a AAAS Fellow in 2008, “for distinguished contributions to the field of behavior and ecology.” Her work has also been featured in Alan Alda’s show, Science Frontiers.

Riechert’s interests span beyond spiders and their behavior, however. “I would get bored, I think, if I just did one thing,” she admits. She helped kickstart VolsTeach, a program endorsed by the Tennessee Department of Education that helps undergraduate students attain a major in a STEM discipline while simultaneously getting their teaching credentials for secondary education. Also, in an effort to reach more children beyond her son’s school in Tennessee, she created Biology in a Box, a program that develops hands-on, interactive ways to teach young students about the natural world.

While Riechert is no longer teaching in her retirement, she wants to impart the following advice to students and young scientists. “First off, go out into nature. Don't just read about it,” she says. “But then once you've been observing, start changing things for the better.”

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