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Biology students and faculty member research Joro spiders

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University of North Georgia students have been searching for and capturing invasive Joro spiders for a few months. It is part of a research project led by Dr. Mattias Johansson to study the native Asian spider's characteristics, its prevalence in north Georgia and its effect on the ecosystem.

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 University of North Georgia (UNG) juniors, both of whom are pursuing biology degrees, have been searching for and capturing 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. Johansson and his students plan to study 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 in 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 strips on their yellow backs and red markings on their undersides, while males are mostly a dull brown.

Helping Johansson with the research are Cole, Lupica, Natalee Dula, Kelsey Hart, and Jordan Manalad. Cole and Lupica, who are both from Milton, Georgia, have 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.

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Joro spiders are similar in size to the native writing spider, and have black legs stripped with yellow-orange markings

Catching the spiders is relatively simple. The students use a Tupperware or plastic container with a lid to trap the live spider. Then they record its location with a GPS. Next, they drop the spider into a jar of ethanol to kill it. Finally, they remove the spider with tweezers and place it in a vial with a specific number and its GPS coordinates. They repeat the process several times.

The pair have collected more than 100 spiders from the woods and nature preserve near UNG's Gainesville Campus. Now, they are enlisting citizen scientists to find and locate Joro spiders in the community.

The faculty-student research team crafted a poster asking for nature enthusiasts' help and displayed it at Elachee Nature Science Center. It asks community members who spot the spiders to document it by taking a photo of the spider and emailing it and the location to jorospiderga@gmail.com.

"The Joro spider is big and obvious," Johansson said. "And they have a unique web because it is yellow and multilayered."

This month, Johansson and his students will start to search for the spider's egg sacks. In the meantime, they are cataloguing the spiders and applying for grant money to fund the research.

Cole penned a grant proposal to Sigma Xi, the scientific research honor society. 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."

Lupica said she prefers hunting for spiders. That's not surprising for the aspiring zoologist who said the experience will help her get into graduate school.

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."

Joro spider research

  • To report a Joro spider, email a photograph and the location to jorospiderga@gmail.com
  • Mattias Johansson will deliver a presentation on Joro spiders and invasive species as part of the Elachee Science Nights series Tuesday, Nov. 12, at YellowFin restaurant on the Gainesville downtown square. Visit the Elachee website to register.

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