In Brown Hall, there is a door that many students have come to fear. It features a picture of a spider and is appropriately marked “Spider Lab.”
To dispel some of the misconceptions about what goes on behind that door and to calm students’ arachnophobia, we interviewed Thomas Jones about his cutting edge research.
No, Jones is not studying spiders in hopes of accidentally turning into a radioactive superhero, but rather because they are the ideal model for the type of research he is conducting.
“In our lab, we study animal behavior from all sides- ecology, neurobiology and genetics, and the spider is the ideal organism for this type of research.
They are behaviorally complex enough to get meaningful data but neurologically simple enough to make it an easy organism to proceed with research,” Jones said.
Jones is trained as a behavioral ecologist and is interested in the personalities of spiders.
“In our lab, we study different species of spiders and their personalities under different conditions. By personality, we mean whether they are social or solitary and how aggressive they are,” he said.
Several people make up Jones’ team of researchers, including graduate student Ashley Herrig.
“Ashley is looking at the effects of internal bacterial communities on behavior, but we also look at brain chemistry and analyze the hormones contained in the blood,” Jones said. According to Jones, Herrig’s research has recently led to the discovery that there is a correlation between spider personality and internal bacteria. This incredible finding is just one of the many amazing things that students have discovered while working in Jones’ lab.
“Several years ago, we actually had several undergraduates in a biology 3 lab doing an independent study that discovered that one species of spider was particularly aggressive at night but timid during the day,” Jones said.
This research by motivated undergraduates lead to further discoveries about spiders’ circadian rhythms.
“Further research showed that even when they were left in constant darkness the spiders’ internal circadian clock still ran normally and they continued to show the patterns of timidity and aggressiveness that the bio 3 students discovered,” Jones said.
In fact, spider circadian rhythm has been a major area of interest for Jones and his collaborator Darrell Moore and led them to their research project called “Spiders on the Clock.” “This project basically looks at the circadian rhythms of spiders and spider personality by day versus at night and this research led us to the discovery of a spider that has the shortest circadian rhythm of any known species,” Jones said.
According to Jones, this circadian rhythm theoretically shouldn’t exist and he is currently investigating what advantages this species may gain from this anomaly.
In the meantime, Jones continues to be interested in how spider behavior changes based on ecological factors.
“If we look at spider personality from an ecological perspective, we are finding that some personality differences between spiders in a single species have very recently arisen with the introduction of dams to the region,” he said. “For example, in one Tennessee dam, the spiders on the colder side of the dam are more social while the spiders on the warmer side are more solitary.”
Because of the intersection of so many different fields of research, Jones has jokingly coined a term for his field.
“I like to call what I do ‘behavioral neuroecology’ because it combines so many different types of scientific research,” he said.
For anyone interested in learning more about spiders, Jones will be teaching an arachnology course this upcoming fall semester, or you can follow his Facebook page at “ETSU Spider Lab.”