Building a Web of Connection: Spiders, Citizens, and Scientists
By Brigette Brown
On a brilliant winter day, two dozen individuals—including myself—collected at Tyler Arboretum in suburban Philadelphia for a Lunch and Learn on invertebrates, presented by volunteer naturalist Steven Tessler, Ph.D. With a great many laughs and a few questions, the presentation ended with a call to join his Map the Spider initiative: tracking Atypus snetsingeri, a particular purseweb spider found only in southeastern Pennsylvania.
Tessler has been in pursuit of this purseweb spider for over 10 years. Cryptic in nature, smaller than a quarter, the only representative of the Atypus genus to be found in North America, and one that lives underground, it is no wonder these spiders are rarely seen. But, when searching for these spiders, you actually look for external signs instead, such as their easy-to-spot, tube-like silk web. These webs can be found creeping up along the bottom edges of fences and trees, and their colors and heights will vary. This is because the spider will decorate its web with materials at hand—such as grasses, mud, or tree bark—making each web slightly different; a reflection of the world around it.
Collecting data on the locations and life cycles of these relatively unknown spiders requires dedication, patience, and great timing. Like most professionals who work full-time, Tessler found doing this kind of research alone eventually becomes time-consuming and expensive. Once he discovered some of these webs on the grounds of Tyler Arboretum—a local, nonprofit organization boasting 650 protected natural acres and a robust volunteer program—he got resourceful and contacted the Arboretum’s volunteer coordinator. And that’s where Julia Ehrhardt, director of community engagement at Tyler Arboretum, comes in.
Ehrhardt is a self-proclaimed match-matcher. Using her background in science, education, and community, it is her job and passion to find the best fit between a volunteer eager to get involved and a scientist with a project that needs assistance. Outreach coordinators like Ehrhardt are a great resource for both parties involved—through them, volunteers can find projects that suit their skills, interests, and schedules, and scientists can tap into a ready-made group of people willing to dedicate their free time to science. And for Tessler, this match-making proved very useful. Together with Ehrhardt, he launched the citizen science project, Spider Watch.
Volunteers, or citizen scientists, often see what you don’t see—they can also bring fresh perspectives and an eager curiosity to the job. Getting someone into the field or organizing a database can provide ample opportunities to collect data, confirm results, or discover something new. For scientists and experts with possible citizen-science projects in mind, Tessler recommends introducing yourself to a nearby organization like Tyler Arboretum—consider local conservation nonprofits, colleges with a nature focus, public parks, or even outdoor clubs such as trail-hiking. These organizations are eager to have experts give talks, lead field trips, or even set up projects that they can offer to their community. For the knowledge a scientist brings to the organization, in return the organization can offer volunteers. If a scientist can’t hook up with an organization, Ehrhardt recommends channeling your project through services such as volunteermatch.org or meetup.com to find new and interested individuals.
Citizen science involves working with many different perspectives. If you consider tapping into a partner organization, check its mission statement and be sure it aligns with the project. For example, Tyler Arboretum functions under a no-harm policy; this might not be suitable for certain types of collections. And citizen scientists may come from all different backgrounds. Because of this diversity, find ways to keep the project flexible and creative. For example, websites or apps like Tessler’s Map the Spider will make data collection and observations easy to share and access. Instead of in-person meetings, try e-newsletters or online video-chat services to stay connected or set up future events. Create a project-related email address to communicate and stay organized, instead of using your personal one. And encourage any existing members to bring family and friends aboard.
It’s also important to bear in mind that early results may not be indicative of the overall—or lasting—success of a project. The first year of Spider Watch faced challenges with unexpected weather that curbed volunteer turnout. Ehrhardt, who works with 26 different volunteer groups, says this is normal. She recommends rolling with the punches, learning along the way. Failure to collect initial data or gaining enough support is simply an avenue to reflect on adjustments and change.
Ultimately, with every project, there is a necessity to create a story—a meaning. You’ve discovered something worth investigating, you’ve found and created a target group of volunteers, and you’ve gathered data. What now? Like the purseweb spider, use what you have in your surroundings. Find ways to connect this newly created “web” of scientists and citizens to the much wider world around you, and the story will continue.
Find the secretive purseweb spider
Brigette Brown is a librarian, freelance editor, and science writer in Philadelphia. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.