Do you find scorpions fascinating, daddy longlegs elegant, and think that spiders get a bad rap? If so, you may be suited for a career as an arachnologist—a scientist who studies the biology of these animals. As an arachnologist, Paula E. Cushing’s proudest accomplishment is leading a team to update and revise Spiders of North America: An identification manual. Cushing is also a curator of invertebrate zoology at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, which allows her to share her passion with scientists, teachers, students, artists, and the rest of us.
What is arachnology?
Arachnids consist of over 90,000 discovered species, including spiders, scorpions, daddy longlegs, camel spiders (or solifugids), ticks, and mites. Arachnologists study some aspect of the biology of one or more of these groups of animals. For example, I study the evolutionary relationships among different species of camel spiders in the order Solifugae. I also study the evolutionary ecology of tiny spiders that live symbiotically inside the nest chambers of an ant species. In addition, I conduct a biodiversity project—the Colorado Spider Survey (www.dmns.org/spiders/default.aspx)—surveying and documenting the different species of spiders found in the Rocky Mountain ecoregion.
How did you become an arachnologist?
I’ve had an interest in science and in the natural world since childhood. When I was in high school I knew I wanted to be a biologist and a researcher, so throughout my teens I volunteered as a naturalist at a local park. One summer, I interned in the Insect Zoo at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, and started learning about the natural history of insects and spiders. I learned enough about spiders working at the Insect Zoo to give my very first public talk about spiders. Going into college, I was interested in researching the biology of arthropods and volunteered in a biology professor’s laboratory my freshman year. That professor was an arachnologist—he became my mentor, taught me about spiders and research, and took me to my first scientific conference to present a project he and I worked on together. The field of arachnology is fairly small, with only about 1,000 researchers worldwide, and the other scientists at the meeting were very supportive of student research. I was not only fascinated with the organisms, but I was also attracted to the collegial and supportive atmosphere I found at that first scientific meeting.
Cushing collects spiders in the field.
Describe your job.
For science in any field to progress, scientists must collaborate and support one another, and must be willing to translate their passion and knowledge to the general public. This is where my job comes in. As a curator, I combine research and outreach to bridge the gap between scientists and the public. The research aspect of my job involves conducting scientific studies and overseeing collections of preserved invertebrates—arachnids, insects, and shells. Data associated with these specimens tell scientists where the organisms were collected, when they were collected, and who collected them. Thus, studying these museum specimens can inform us about the biodiversity of the different habitats of Earth and can indicate how this biodiversity has changed over time. For example, we can ask how habitat degradation has affected species diversity by studying museum specimens. The outreach side entails teaching, lecturing, attending workshops, conducting behind-the-scenes tours, and staying involved with professional scientific societies in my field (see “Bonus Points”).
BS Biology, MS Zoology, PhD in Zoology
On the web:
Entomologist, zoologist, biology lab technician, high school biology teacher
Advice for students?
The best way for students to learn about spiders and other arachnids is to observe them. Students should find out if local parks and natural areas are in need of volunteer naturalists. Internships are available through some museums and zoos for students to gain experience working with animals and scientists. Local university professors or museum curators may need help in the laboratory. Students who have a serious interest in science should never be afraid to e-mail or contact a scientist for advice. In any such correspondence, students should be formal, polite, and, most importantly, prepared with organized and clear questions. Students can obtain a wealth of information just by interviewing a scientist or sending a researcher a list of thoughtful questions.
—By Megan Sullivan