August 12, 2022
By Haley Dittbrenner ’25
Ecology major Aislinn Shilcusky ’24 researched the purseweb spider alongside Matthew Persons, professor of biology, trying to determine why the small tarantula launches its excretion over 40 times its body length.
The purseweb spider, scientifically referred to as Atypus karschi, spends most of its time underground within a vertical silk web and projects its excretion between 17-20 millimeters from the web’s entrance. Their research centers around this projectile defecation and whether it impacts the amount of prey caught inside the spider’s web.
“I am further testing our drift-fence hypothesis in which these long lines of excreta patterns serve to re-direct and funnel prey species, such as isopods, into the spider’s web,” Shilcusky, of Pottsville, said. “My project aims to replicate the purseweb’s natural excreta buildup over a period of time and test whether excreta presence increases prey contact frequency with the purseweb’s tube.”
The research is a continuation of work that was underway at Susquehanna University last spring and likely will not be complete until spring 2023.
“It might take until next spring to figure out what is going on because the experimental logistics are pretty difficult,” Persons said. “I love talking about research, but at this point, we would be tasting a cake that is half-baked.”
Even though the experiment had just begun, Shilcusky described the pleasure of running her own experiments and working with the spiders.
“The satisfaction of continually improving my technique and accumulating data that supports my hypothesis is extremely rewarding,” she said. “I co-presented research on this topic at this year’s Landmark Summer Scholarship Symposium, which was an amazing experience. I have also enjoyed working with the spiders themselves. They are incredibly intelligent, adaptable and absolutely fascinating to observe.”
Shilcusky said that hearing from students who have worked with Persons in the past influenced her desire to work in his well-known spider lab.
“It has been such a valuable experience working with someone who is both so knowledgeable and passionate about what they do,” she said. “He constantly encourages me to reach my full potential with this research and has enabled me to confidently make executive decisions regarding my experiment.”
After graduating, Shilcusky hopes to attend graduate school and explore both ornithology and entomology, through which she hopes to contribute to large-scale ecological conservation efforts. “Whatever I devote myself to in the future, I want it to be meaningful,” she added.