The ground around us: Spider research at UC Berkeley

Photo of a spider
Andressolo/Creative Commons

Related Posts

When imagining research into spider biology, one might picture anything from the horror writing of Ezekiel Boone to science fiction comic heroes such as Spiderman, but for several labs at UC Berkeley’s Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management, invertebrates, including spiders, are the focus of a wide array of nonfiction projects. On a large scale, researchers in the field of spider biology are exploring everything from genetics to taxonomy to biomechanics. The Elias Lab at UC Berkeley is an animal communication and behavior lab that focuses on bioacoustic research.

Bioacoustic research is a hybrid science that combines the disciplines of biology and acoustics — in general, it studies the ways in which animals produce, respond to and interact with sound. The Elias Lab studies the different ways that various creatures behave and how this behavior might adapt and change in response to stimuli.

At the Elias Lab, Maggie Raboin, a graduate student, is studying the ways that sound — specifically, human-created sound — affects invertebrates such as spiders. Anthropogenic noise, or noise introduced into nature by humans, is a conservation issue that is increasingly being explored by research communities that focus on invertebrates. Research into the effects of human noise on vertebrate populations is already underway, and efforts to mitigate those effects are being pursued at national parks, but there are other kinds of sounds that people introduce into natural environments that affect invertebrates, specifically.

Humans are noisy. When we think of noise pollution, what often comes to mind are things such as construction, traffic or our noisy neighbors. But those are just the sounds we can experience. Raboin explained that a vast number of invertebrates communicate through sounds in the ground — substrate-borne sounds — and humans contribute a great deal of noise to these channels.

“I’m specifically focused on spiders, but actually, the majority of animals on Earth sense and communicate sound through the ground rather than through the air, the way that we do.” Raboin explained.

Her research includes recording data on the mound-building practices of mason spiders, which spend about 20 hours of each day collecting pebbles, sticks and seeds from their environment and making the trip to and from their mounds to continually expand the structures. Raboin found that spiders living near high vehicle traffic areas tend to spend a lot more time hiding, as if from a predator, than they do building their mounds.

These shelters aren’t just to house themselves; mason spiders build their mounds to protect their eggs. Raboin’s research found that areas with noisy and heavy traffic also showed higher egg mortality rates. While Raboin has focused on the effects of traffic noise, she explained that other researchers are also looking at processes, including oil and gas extraction, and other active areas, such as airports and military sites.

Before stay-at-home orders blocked much of the research world’s field work endeavors, Raboin spent a lot of her time outdoors with the subjects of her study. When asked what some of her favorite parts of her work were, Raboin explained that getting to be outside a lot was something she enjoyed. Now, however, she and her lab spend a lot more time analyzing data they have already gathered in the field and reviewing papers.

Raboin’s other favorite part of her lab work is being humbled by the creatures she observes. She described how studying spiders often lets her reflect on her own personal understanding of the world and how that might compare to all of the other perspectives around her — such as that of the spiders she studies.

Raboin’s other favorite part of her lab work is being humbled by the creatures she observes.

“It forces you to consider the frame of reference of these animals that are really hard to relate to,” Raboin said. “To try to put yourself in their sort of sensory environment — sensory experience — you realize how limited human perception is and how limited our understandings of the world are.”

Raboin completed her undergraduate degree at the University of Montana in wildlife biology and went on to focus on the communication and sensory ecology of spiders. Growing up in International Falls, Minnesota, Raboin spent a majority of her time outdoors and first began collecting jumping spiders when she was in fourth grade.

Her grandfather was a park ranger, which kept Raboin and her family close to nature. With both parents working as school teachers, she would be sent out of the house during the summers, which forced her to find entertainment in the natural environment around her.

“I’ve always been super, just, fascinated by not only spiders but all the other little things that are around,” Raboin said.

Surprisingly, Raboin reported that she’s only been bitten by a spider once — a house spider when she was off the clock from her research. She described spiders as sweet animals, noting her thankfulness for her outdoor childhood that helped her avoid the conditioning so many of us get to fear these little invertebrates. As she continues her research into the ways that spiders are affected by the sounds humans introduce into their communicative environment, Raboin hopes to build a foundation of knowledge that can be used to protect these vulnerable communities.

Contact Megan Sousa at [email protected].