Hannah Cole is terrified of spiders. She has been known to “freak out” when she sees or feels one crawling on her. Gabby Lupica is not afraid of them, but not fond of them either.
However, the two UNG juniors, both of whom are pursuing biology degrees, searched for and captured invasive Joro spiders for a few months. It is part of a research project led by Dr. Mattias Johansson, assistant professor of biology at UNG. During the 2019-20 academic year, Johansson and his students are studying the native Asian spider’s characteristics, its prevalence in north Georgia and its effect on the ecosystem.
“There are a lot of potential research questions,” Johansson said. “Are they harmful to the pollinator community? If that’s an issue, it opens up questions about if we should manage them. Are they fitting in with the local spiders? Or are they diminishing the native population of spiders? How are they using the habitat?”
Johansson plans to find the answers, because he finds invasive species of all kinds fascinating. Natives of Japan, Korea, China, and Taiwan, Joro spiders are similar in size to the native writing spider, and have black legs stripped with yellow-orange markings. Females have bluish-green stripes on their yellow backs and red markings on their undersides, while males are mostly a dull brown.
“The Joro spider is big and obvious,” Johansson said. “And they have a unique web because it is yellow and multilayered.”
Helping Johansson with the research are Cole, Lupica, Natalee Dula, and Jordan Manalad. Cole and Lupica, who are both from Milton, Georgia, spent part of the 2019 fall semester traversing Tumbling Creek Woods and Chicopee Woods Nature Preserve to find and capture Joro spiders. On Cole’s first venture into the woods, she caught between 40 and 50 spiders.
“That was before Gabby and I knew that we needed only 25-35 spiders in one location,” Cole said.
The pair collected more than 100 spiders and recorded their GPS coordinates in the woods and nature preserve near UNG’s Gainesville Campus. Then, they enlisted citizen scientists to locate Joro spiders in the community and document their location by taking a photo and emailing it to firstname.lastname@example.org. During fall 2019, between 250 and 300 spiders were collected.
Next, Johansson and his students searched for the spider’s egg sacks in November and plan to continue in spring 2020. About the same time, they are cataloging the data before the analysis begins.
Cole also penned a grant proposal to Sigma Xi, the scientific research honor society, to fund the research. She said writing the grant has been her favorite part.
“Most juniors are not writing grants at this level,” the 21-year-old said. “Having Dr. Johansson and other faculty members help me was really special.”
Johansson explained exposing Cole and Lupica to an undergraduate research project will help them throughout their careers.
“I want to teach students the skills they need for the job, and research is the job,” he said, explaining he plans to establish it as a continuous research project. “The goal of this is to have a research program that can tick along and deliver different student outcomes.”
Lupica said he is succeeding.
“I’ve never done this before,” she said. “It’s eye-opening to see how much work goes into it.”