Ohio Citizen Scientists Seek ‘Ultimate Insect.’

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Ohio Citizens have been volunteering as part-time scientists at least since 1900, when the Audobon Society started its Christmas Bird Count. Now they’re helping to study a family of creatures that make up a big part of a baby bird’s diet spiders. In the second of WOSU’s series on citizen science, Jonathan Hickman reports on the Ohio Spider Survey.

When Ohio State University entomologist Richard Bradley began working on a survey of spiders in Ohio in 1994, he was starting down a path that had gathered its fair share of cobwebs.

“There had really been nothing done since a fellow named William Barrows published a list for the spiders for Ohio back in 1919, and then he revised it back in 1924, and that literally was the most recent published list for spiders in Ohio.” Says Bradley.

The 1924 publication listed 306 species of spiders in Ohio, and 181 more had been mentioned in publications since then, but Bradley was certain there were many more species out there that hadn’t been accounted for. He realized that involving volunteers would be both a great way to get more collectors on the project, and to burnish spiders’ public image while he’s at it.

“I always say that spiders are kind of charismatically challenged wildlife, because most people really have no love for them at all. But given some familiarity, they start to appreciate them more, and some people even, you know, like em.” Says Bradley.

Whether it’s because they love them or hate them, many Ohioans have sent photographs or specimens to Bradley.

“I get about between 1100 and 1500 emails every year from people who want me to look at and try to identify a spider. it’s just you’re average Joe, I mean, somebody who’s interested because maybe they see a picture of a spider or maybe they see this amazing looking spider and their either frightened or intrigued and they want to know what it is.” Bradley says.

One loyal collector who fit both descriptions is Lodi Ohio’s Barbara Natterer.

“Ever since I was a young girl I was afraid of spiders. My grandmother I remember had an old home in Lakewood ohio with very high ceilings. And if there were any cobwebs way up in the corner, when we’d go to visit I’d be terrified to even walk into the dining room. I don’t know what it was.” Says Naterrer

Deciding to face her fears, Natterer got involved in the spider survey in 1994. Once she was hooked, she had no qualms about searching for spiders in settings a little less welcoming than her grandmother’s dining room.

“I like to many times target around old barns that are 100 to 150 years old. And I crawl around old barns, looking for things, and I sweepnet around old barns.” Says Naterrer.

But Natterer does have her limits.

“I don’t want them on me. I’ll go after them but I don’t want them on me.”

Going after spiders doesn’t take much investment, one favorite technique, known as the beating sheet method, involves simply whacking a tree branch over a white sheet or plastic bag, and then gathering up the spiders that fall like candy from a pi ata. A big reason Natterer has become devoted to spider collecting and part of what keeps her 12 year-old granddaughter coming along as her field assistant is the rare chance to be an explorer making a new discovery.

“We don’t know what’s out there. That’s what makes it so exciting. This is like a pioneer science right now. Spiders.”

With so much left to discover in Ohio, the public has an opportunity to make real contributions to our knowledge of spiders in the state there’s still a lot of terra incognita on Richard Bradley’s map.

“So even a fairly common spider from a locality we haven’t been to is going to be a new dot on the map. It isn’t very often that people send in anything that will be new for the state, but that does happen.” Says Bradley.

In at least one case, a homeowner near Youngstown found a spider in his yard that neither she nor the extension entomologist could identify.

“it was not only new for Ohio, but it was new for North America. It turned out to be a speices that is known only from Europe and Western Asia.” Says Bradley.

Even if she weren’t helping new discoveries, collecting for the Ohio Spider Survey has helped change Natterer’s feelings about spiders. She hopes she’s helped others to like them more, too, but her expectations are planted firmly in the ground.

“I don’t expect people to love em and hug em, but just respect them, respect what they do, and don’t worry about them.” Says Naterrer.

The spider survey is ongoing, and new specimens are always welcome. Jonathan Hickman, WOSU News