I was not looking forward to today — we have these swarms of spiders hatching out, and we have to do something with them all. They’re in cramped little petri dishes, an entire clutch together, which is fine early on, since they naturally aggregate after first emerging from the egg sac, and then a few days later start ballooning and dispersing by wafting away on the wind. “Wafting away on the wind” isn’t a great strategy for maintaining a laboratory colony, though. Last year I would pluck them out one by one and put them in tiny individual containers, which is ridiculously labor intensive, and then feed them flies individually, even worse, and that wasn’t going to work at all with the numbers we’re dealing with. Especially since fall term starts way too soon, and students are going to be occupied with mere classes.
So my student Maya is doing a simple experiment to see the effects of population density on juvenile mortality. We didn’t put the spiderlings in individual containers, but in two different sizes of containers in different numbers. We opened up the petri dishes of spiderlings and counted out individuals into larger containers.
It was amusing and different. The spiders, as soon as the lid was off, saw freedom awaiting them and would put out a thread to start ballooning. We’d gently sweep in with a paintbrush and snag them, move the brush over their new container, and give a little shake — sometimes they’d oblige by neatly rappelling down, sometimes they’d jump off, sometimes they’d get obstinate and you’d have to dab the brush against the container to convince them to move. Meanwhile, while you were distracted, more spiderlings were launching themselves skyward. More than a few escaped. More than a few, I’m sure, snugged themselves down in our clothing. It’s all good.
(Oops, just found one in my shirt sleeve. Now my office has some new residents.)
The end result is that we now have a known number of spiders in known volumes of space. We’ll track survival every few days to see how they fare. Once they get larger, we’ll spread them out a little more, but currently we find that the adults coexist nicely with two in a 5.7L container, so we’re hoping that the babies won’t fight and cannibalize each other at a somewhat higher density.
(Just found another baby under my shirt collar.)