University of Pittsburgh behavioral ecologist Jonathan Pruitt is used to being called “spider man” even though he doesn’t spin webs or fight crime.
Pruitt, 29, of Squirrel Hill, is the youngest person named to Popular Science magazine’s Brilliant 10 list for 2015, for his research into the personalities of social spiders. The annual award recognizes the work of the brightest young minds in science and engineering. And despite their somewhat creepy reputation, there are spiders whose colonies exhibit rather humanlike behavior, Pruitt says, which has larger implications for studying how they work and survive.
So why spiders?
I always wanted to study weird animals, because I loved the show Crocodile Hunter. I figured I couldn’t be the Crocodile Hunter, but I knew I wanted to study predators. I studied sharks, lizards, all kinds of predators before I decided on spiders. And the conventional wisdom about social spiders was totally wrong; the thinking was that in colonies of spiders, all colonies were the same, and all spiders behaved the same. No one had measured their individual behavior. And it turns out they cooperate, they help raise each others’ young. A colony of social spiders is similar to a pride of lions, but spiders are a little more amenable to being studied in this way.
What’s something people don’t know about spiders?
What’s interesting is that the colonies are organized based on personalities rather than morphology, like wasps and bees are. Bees have their roles assigned based on their body type and physical attributes, so the ones who have the biggest bodies and stingers protect the queen and reproduce. Social spiders roles’ are based on their aptitude and their behavior. The job they take in the colony is the one they’re most interested in, which obviously is not that different from how humans choose their roles and jobs.
What’s the usual reaction when people find out your field of study?
Well first they call me “Spiderman.” And they always want to know if I’ve ever been bitten. Of course I have, all the time. I’m painting these spiders and handling them, of course they bite me. Once they find that out, most people have a story about this guy they know who was bitten by a brown recluse spider. And I explain about how many different species of spiders there are. Only 25 of the 45,000 species of spiders are social, and they live in tropical climates.
Are there lessons to be learned about humans from spider research?
Absolutely. So, we’re always trying to circumvent extinction, whether it’s for crops or animals or our own species. If we can learn how spiders survive and create an efficient workforce to avoid extinction, there are many lessons for us about how we can pass on and encourage personality traits that may help prevent our own extinction.
How do kids respond to your work? Do they get creeped out or do they think it’s cool?
They are the best audiences, really. Fifth- and sixth-graders have so much curiosity for the world outside. The average fifth-grader is the most competent scientist, and several of their questions have even turned into cool experiments for me. I think for most of us, that curiosity disappears with age, but the kids that have that curiosity stick with them are the ones who become scientists. They’re the ones who keep asking questions.