October 01, 2015

SU Biologists Earn National Media Attention

Like many women of the human variety, female wolf spiders step up their game when their targeted mate just isn’t paying attention. That’s according to research published last spring by Professor of Biology Matt Persons and 2008 grads Jamie Havrilak and Kristin Shimmel while they were sophomores working in Persons’ spider lab at Susquehanna.

Published in the journal Ethology, their research uncovered behavior that shakes up long-held notions about female spider behavior. In fact, it found that the females actively seduce males using their pheromone-laden dragline silk.

The findings then went mainstream, hitting National Geographic, among other media outlets. The attention is nothing new for Persons and his student researchers, who study courtship rituals, cannibalism and a host of other strange-and sometimes hair-raising-behaviors in wolf spiders primarily.

What was new is that the magazine ran one of Persons’ photos with the article. “In some ways, it was as much of an honor to have National Geographic accept one of my photographs as it was for them to cover our research,” he says.

Publication of the photo validated his 2012 decision to take a photography class taught by Gordon Wenzel, adjunct faculty member in the Department of Art and award-winning photographer and owner of Impressions Studio. “I wanted to be able to photograph these little animals and show them engaging in the behaviors that we study. Unfortunately, there are tremendous technical challenges to photographing a lively animal the size of your fingernail,” Persons explains. “Gordon really helped me convey my science through images, and I’m grateful for taking the class.”

Despite the national media nods to his research—and now his photography—Persons says his best validation is the success of his students. “Both Jamie and Kristin have gone on to great science careers,” Persons says. “Jamie is now ‘Dr. Havrilak,’ having finished her Ph.D. at the University of Cincinnati in their developmental biology program. Kristin went to graduate school at Case Western University and is now a laboratory manager there.”
Another one of his former research students, Alex Sweger ’10, has even continued studying wolf spider behavior at the University of Cincinnati. His research on a wolf spider that “purrs” was also featured in mainstream media outlets this summer.