Spider science lurches fitfully forward!

Oh, hey, it’s the day before Halloween, and I only just now looked up from my work. This has been a busy day — it’s advising week, and all these students have been lining up at my virtual door to get me to validate their choices for spring term courses. We didn’t have this when I was an undergrad at the UW. Instead, we had a scavenger hunt every quarter: we’d puzzle out on our own what courses we needed, then we’d run around campus, tracking down professors and asking them for a precious computer punchcard, which they’d give us if we met their standards, and then we’d get in a long line and file in to the registrar, turn in our deck of cards which would go into a cardreader, and then 10 minutes (or so) later, we’d get a printout of the courses we were taking (unless there was a conflict or error, in which case we’d get our cards back and go on another scavenger hunt to find a card that fixed everything), and we’d turn around and walk a few meters to the conveniently located billing office to cough up our tuition on the spot.

So that ate up a good part of today. It might have been better in the good old days when the students had to do all the legwork.

We also reviewed our recent spider experiments, which were kind of disappointing. The spiders were mostly immobile in the time-lapse recordings, and we were wondering what we were doing wrong, and then we noticed…”say, how come the illumination in these videos never changes?”…so I checked the timer on our light source, and realized it was broken and it has permanently been 3pm all week long. No wonder I’m so tired! So I ordered new timers.

While we were waiting for that to arrive, we tried a wild-ass sloppy experiment, and just let the lights in the lab regulate the light level for a few days in our time-lapse rig. We discovered that lab lighting is temporal chaos, with custodians and security guards doing their thing, so that there is no such thing as a 14:10 light cycle. There’s supposed to be a pattern! The cage goes purplish pink when the IR camera is working, and shades of gray when we’ve got daylight, but no: they’ve been on an 8:2:3:1:7:3 cycle, I think, and who knows what’s going on. The spiders probably don’t.

We did notice that our reclusive spiders did go into overdrive in the brief periods of real darkness, though, so now we just have to get that functioning reliably.

So the new timers arrived today, and Ade built a Space Cocoon.

What that is is, on top, a clamp light with a natural daylight lamp on a functioning timer with a 14 hour on/10 hour off cycle. Below that is a Raspberry PI with a NoIR camera, and also an IR lamp that is permanently on. Below that is a cage with a spider in it, trapped in a kind of panopticon. And then, elegantly wrapped around the whole contraption, a couple of layers of aluminum foil so the only thing illuminating the spider’s living quarters is our controlled lighting. It ain’t pretty, but we’ll try to get some data and then fuss over making it fancy.

Then I fed the babies.

I’m getting pretty slick at that. Here’s the way I work it:

I put a few hundred fruit flies in the wide mouth plastic cup in the foreground, with a petri dish as a lid to prevent them from escaping. Then I remove the foam plugs from a row of spider vials, tap tap tap to knock all the flies to the bottom of the cup, remove the petri dish, and incline the cup so one side is almost horizontal over the vials. The flies (wingless, so they have to walk) rush to the lip of the cup, where I’m waiting with a paintbrush to flick, flick, flick flies into the hellmouths of the vials, where they are instantly trapped in the dense mat of silk therein. Cap the cup, restore the foam plugs, and repeat. I can do 300 baby spiders in 15 minutes now. 1200 spiders per hour. I could raise an army of about 10,000 spiders if I didn’t have to do that pesky teaching and committee work stuff. DOES NO ONE UNDERSTAND MY PRIORITIES?

That was my Friday.

You know, if I could kidnap the students I advise and put them to work in my spider farm, I’d be able to raise hundreds of thousands of spiders. I’d have to take over some adjacent labs to accomplish that, but if I must, I must. We demand Spinnenraum, it is our destiny!


  1. says

    I really love seeing your cobbled together lab gear. This one reminds me of that old MASH episode where they build a kidney dialysis machine out of junk and bits of plumbing.

  2. DanDare says

    I remember that MASH episode.
    Also Apollo 13. Rrplace the CO2 scrubber? Step 1, tear off the front cover of the manual…

  3. JoeBuddha says

    As a Data Processing student in the ’70’s, I learned about each of the Unit Record machines the CC had. Sorter, duplicator, printer on top of the cards. Patch panels and all. And we saw the entire enrollment process. It was great fun.

  4. PaulBC says

    @1 Right. That’s the one thing I “knew” about dialysis till about five years ago. That Hawkeye and BJ (I guess) made a machine with sausage casings in a MASH episode. Since then, a family medical emergency came up that I’ll omit for privacy (we’re all fine with our “new normal”), but I’m now pretty up on nephrology, not to mention solid organ transplant and immunology. I spent a bunch of time studying the latter, and now I somewhat understand central tolerance–why we usually don’t attack our own cells. It’s cool stuff.

    Dialysis is a weak substitute for a functioning kidney, but it can keep you going for a long time provided there are no co-morbidities. Co-morbidities are common though, so on average most people don’t live long on dialysis. One thing that made it uncommon until years later is that they really didn’t get at in MASH, at least I don’t think, is vascular access. Being able to disconnect and reconnect regularly. Also, usually if you need dialysis, you’re just stuck on it till you die or get a transplant, so it wouldn’t have helped you too much at the time of the Korean war. There are cases when it can treat an acute condition and your kidneys go back to functioning. I should rewatch that episode and see how much they got right. (I can’t imagine how young I was the last time I saw it.)

  5. stwriley says

    There is such a delightful mad scientist vibe to the phrase “I could raise an army of 10,000 spiders…” that just pleases me no end. I think Halloween might be affecting you after all, PZ.

  6. PaulBC says

    @5 I said it a long time ago, but I am reminded of Renfield in Bram Stoker’s original novel Dracula:

    _5 June._–The case of Renfield grows more interesting the more I get to
    understand the man. He has certain qualities very largely developed;
    selfishness, secrecy, and purpose. I wish I could get at what is the
    object of the latter. He seems to have some settled scheme of his own,
    but what it is I do not yet know. His redeeming quality is a love of
    animals, though, indeed, he has such curious turns in it that I
    sometimes imagine he is only abnormally cruel. His pets are of odd
    sorts. Just now his hobby is catching flies. He has at present such a
    quantity that I have had myself to expostulate. To my astonishment, he
    did not break out into a fury, as I expected, but took the matter in
    simple seriousness. He thought for a moment, and then said: “May I have
    three days? I shall clear them away.” Of course, I said that would do. I
    must watch him.

    _18 June._–He has turned his mind now to spiders, and has got several
    very big fellows in a box. He keeps feeding them with his flies, and
    the number of the latter is becoming sensibly diminished, although he
    has used half his food in attracting more flies from outside to his

    _1 July._–His spiders are now becoming as great a nuisance as his
    flies, and to-day I told him that he must get rid of them. He looked
    very sad at this, so I said that he must clear out some of them, at all
    events. He cheerfully acquiesced in this, and I gave him the same time
    as before for reduction. He disgusted me much while with him, for when a
    horrid blow-fly, bloated with some carrion food, buzzed into the room,
    he caught it, held it exultantly for a few moments between his finger
    and thumb, and, before I knew what he was going to do, put it in his
    mouth and ate it. I scolded him for it, but he argued quietly that it
    was very good and very wholesome; that it was life, strong life, and
    gave life to him. This gave me an idea, or the rudiment of one. I must
    watch how he gets rid of his spiders. He has evidently some deep problem
    in his mind, for he keeps a little note-book in which he is always
    jotting down something. Whole pages of it are filled with masses of
    figures, generally single numbers added up in batches, and then the
    totals added in batches again, as though he were “focussing” some
    account, as the auditors put it.

  7. TGAP Dad says

    I was wondering about the heat dissipation. Between the IR and and the clamp-on reflector, it seems a fair amount of heat for the enclosed space.

  8. Ted Powell says

    Thiis eveniing Rachel Maddow (MSNBC, 6-7pm PST) in her turnover to Lawremce O’Donnell (MSNBC, 7-8pm PST) mentioned that she has obtained a six-ans-a-half foot spider, which she plans to mount on her pickup truck with suitable Hallowe’en decorations tomorrow, for a parade.