UC biologist earns acclaim for spider research

George Uetz is honored by his alma mater and peers

University of Cincinnati biologist George Uetz has always championed novel methods to unlock the secrets of animal behavior.

His first insight through technology came when Uetz and his UC doctoral student at the time, David Clark, realized that captive spiders reacted to two-dimensional images of other spiders cast by a lab projector.

Clark was editing Super 8 film of spider courtship behavior in a UC biology lab when he noticed a female spider in a plastic cage seemed to be watching the projected image with him. Then he noticed the female spider next to her was doing the same. And the one next to that, he recalled.

“It was really by accident. I look around the room and behind me all the females are at the edge of their cages watching it, too,” Clark said. “I thought, ‘Wow, that’s really cool.’”

The discovery that spiders not only see and make sense of the flickering images but also react to the image as if it was another spider opened up a universe of experimental questions Uetz and his students set about answering.

George Uetz holds up a wolf spider in his lab.

UC biology professor George Uetz was recognized with the Exemplar Award for his contributions to science by the Animal Behavior Society. Photo/Joseph Fuqua II/UC Creative + Brand

Since then Uetz has embraced high-tech methods of digital image manipulation and experimental video playback to understand the behavior of creatures that perceive the world in ways that are alien to us.

“These techniques have allowed us to modify aspects of the appearance and behavior of spiders to tease apart what individuals recognize about other members of their species,” Uetz said.

Uetz has been earning plaudits during the COVID-19 pandemic. Last year, the Animal Behavior Society, an international nonprofit scientific society that promotes the study of animal behavior, recognized Uetz with its Exemplar Award for his work unravelling the complex behavior of spiders. The award is bestowed annually to researchers who have made a major long-term contribution to the field of animal behavior.

This year, the University of Delaware College of Agriculture and Natural Sciences recognized Uetz with its 2021 Distinguished Alumni Award for career accomplishment, service and leadership in his profession.

Uetz said both honors came as a surprise to him during the past year of the COVID-19 lockdowns. Uetz said he was especially touched by all the congratulatory messages and emails he got from colleagues and friends.

George Uetz and a student work in a biology lab.

UC biology professor George Uetz collaborates with UC graduate student Emmanuel Bagirov to document spider behavior. Photo/Joseph Fuqua II/UC Creative + Brand

Early work in spiders

Uetz has always been fascinated by spiders.

“Spiders are such amazing animals,” he said. “My interest has been from a behavioral evolution point of view.”

George Uetz wears a spider face mask in his office.

George Uetz wears a spider face mask in his office. Photo/Lisa Ventre/UC Creative + Brand

Uetz spent years studying colonial web-building spiders in Mexico.

“Out of some 68,000 spider species in the world, maybe 50 are social,” Uetz said. “Each spider has its own web within the colony but the webs are all attached. There might be 150,000 individuals per colony and the colony stretches 100 meters.”

He published more than two-dozen papers and book chapters helping to explain how and why these normally cannibalistic predators get along so well in a group. Among his other discoveries, Uetz found that spiders find safety in numbers from predators like wasps. Vibrations in their colonial webs give them an early warning of an attack.

Uetz also found that colonial spiders with their multiple webs were more successful at capturing flying prey than isolated spiders. He called this the “ricochet effect,” as prey bounced harmlessly off one web only to fall hopelessly into another. 

In 1991, Uetz took advantage of a solar eclipse to observe orb-weaving spiders in Mexico dismantling their webs during the total eclipse and rebuilding and repairing them once the sun reappeared. But the colonies of spiders he kept illuminated with lights remained unaffected by the eclipse.

A wolf spider.

UC biologist George Uetz has studied the behavior of a variety of wolf spiders, among other species. Photo/Joseph Fuqua II/UC Creative + Brand

Studying wolf spiders

In the world of arachnids, jumping spiders get a lot of public attention. With their big eyes and expectant posture as they stare up at you, they could be described as cute. Many have vibrant colors and dazzling courtship dances that have made them stars on social media and in wildlife documentaries.

“Jumping spiders are the darlings of science,” Uetz said. “They are pretty showy. I just saw a documentary where David Attenborough was talking about them.”

Uetz has spent much of his career studying spiders with far more subdued colors — stealthy predators called wolf spiders. They are brindled in brown and black like a furry dog. Numerous species are found around southwestern Ohio.

“People associate them with a larger, scarier one called a nursery web spider that you might find in a creek or behind your washing machine. Our guys in the lab are much smaller and not at all scary,” Uetz said.

While they have a ferocious name, wolf spiders are virtually harmless to people, Uetz said. After a little training, his students handle them like pros.

He’s a world-class researcher. He’s the best there is.

Biologist David Clark speaking about his mentor George Uetz

In 82 peer-reviewed journal articles, Uetz has revealed their surprising and complex communication, their clever mating strategies and their sophisticated use of chemical cues.

Uetz’s longtime colleague and friend Susan Reichert spent her career studying animal behavior, ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.

“She’s been kind of a big sister-mentor to me,” Uetz said. “Both of us are people who brought attention to spiders as a deserving animal to study. When we both started, there were a few anecdotal studies, but not much at all on spiders. We brought a lot of attention to these animals.”

Reichert credited Uetz for maintaining his prolific research while serving in various other roles, including department head in biological science and associate dean of research in UC’s College of Arts and Sciences.

“George is the consummate scientist. He is both creative and shows tremendous insight into the biology of spiders,” Reichert said.

George Uetz and Madeline Lallo stand in front of equipment in a soundproof room.

UC biologist George Uetz and his student Madeline Lallo use a laser doppler vibrometer in a soundproof room to record vibrations made by courting spiders. Photo/Joseph Fuqua II/UC Creative + Brand

Fostering student work

UC graduate student Olivia Bauer-Nilsen said she decided to pursue a career in biology after taking Uetz’s invertebrate zoology class.

“It was my favorite class. I went on a field trip with his graduate students. I never thought I would be working with spiders. But getting introduced to the diversity of invertebrates and joining the lab persuaded me how cool spiders are,” she said. “They’re so interesting.”

In Uetz’s lab, Bauer-Nilsen is studying spider immunology, particularly how infections affect spider behavior.

Uetz’s work has been supported by more than $2 million in research grants over 30 years, including support from the National Science Foundation and the National Geographic Society. He wrote the book on multimodal communication, or at least the chapter on the topic for “The Encyclopedia of Animal Behavior.”

“He’s a world-class researcher. He’s the best there is,” said former student Clark, now a professor of biology at Alma College where he, too, studies spiders. “He’s one of the best researchers I know. He’s thorough, conscientious. He has an analytical mind and understands research protocols.”

Clark and Uetz discovered that male spiders “eavesdrop” on other courting males to find receptive females by learning to associate other males’ behavior with female cues.

Clark said one notable collaboration with Uetz was on male jumping spiders in a species that has two morphs of color variation and hair tufts. Males in each morph have their own courtship rituals. Clark and Uetz using video playback found that females recognize both variations, an important consideration for males that are trying to court a bigger voracious predatory female.

Clark said spiders are a fantastic research subject that promise future generations of biologists exciting opportunities for discovery.

“We’re just getting started,” Clark said. 

George Uetz and his students peer through racks holding spider habitats in a lab.

UC biology professor George Uetz poses with hist students in his lab. Photo/Joseph Fuqua II/UC Creative + Brand

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