By Michael Matros
Dave Cook '00 spends a lot of time flyfishing, but a few years ago he was visiting New Hampshire
streams for a different reason, conducting field studies in an ecology class at Antioch New England
Graduate School. Cook was doing sampling studies, placing driftnets in streams to see what kinds of
animals came floating or swimming by.
Later Cook enrolled at Keene State, and he mentioned his discovery to his biology professor, Karen Cangialosi. Together they speculated that the creatures were using the streams for dispersal, but then they looked closer at the arachnids' behavior. "We now think these spiders were intentionally finding overwintering spots," she says, "where temperatures are ameliorated in little caves under the ice."
Another student, Sharon Martinson '00, worked with Cook and Cangialosi on the study and is now the lead author of an article-in-progress about their findings. She's finishing the written portion of the project at Dartmouth, where she now attends graduate school.
"It's a good example," says Cangialosi, "of how students can find excellent research experiences at a small college."
And when those experiences involve spiders, KSC students can work with a leader in the field of arachnology - and one of a few dozen in the world whose specialty is Argyrodes. The spiders of the genus Argyrodes, explains Cangialosi, are known for, among other characteristics, kleptoparasitism, or their habit of stealing food from other species.
Kleptoparasitism exists throughout the animal world, from the spotted hyena to the African fish eagle to the little eight-legged creatures that take up so much of Cangialosi's attention. And, just as humans employ more than one means of food-gathering - hunting, shopping at the grocer's, ordering from a menu - so do certain Argyrodes. Sometimes the spiders steal insects from another's web, sometimes they take over the web, sometimes they eat the host spider. At times they construct their own webs.
Karen Cangialosi wants to know what it is in a spider's environment that turns it from home-builder to thief to cannibal. Titles of a few of her articles reflect her search: "Foraging Versatility and the Influence of Host Availability in Argyrodes trigonum," for example, appeared in The Journal of Arachnology. Last March she was invited to a gathering of colleagues in South Africa to speak on "Argyrodes Foraging Versatility and Influences on Host Populations."
Observing spiders is one of the ways she looks for general principles about how environment and genetics interact to affect animal behavior. While the purpose of her study is not necessarily to demystify the ways of higher species, such as Homo sapiens, "it can let us know something about important factors influencing the behavior of other animals, especially other terrestrial carnivores."
Cangialosi describes arachnologists as "true scientists, advancing knowledge in the world." Practical applications of their study may come along; many research dollars are now devoted to synthesizing spider silk, known for a remarkable strength-to-weight ratio. But for most of Cangialosi's colleagues, she says, it's not for competitive gain but learning that they spend their days recording spider populations per square meter and watching the dramas of life and death among some of nature's cleverest killers.
While much of her recent research explores the kleptoparasitic tendencies of Argyrodes, Cangialosi joined a colleague last fall at the University of Massachusetts during a one-semester sabbatical to observe the capacity for learning and memory in certain "jumping" spiders.
Cangialosi's focus, she says, was to observe jumping spiders' "ability to learn to associate environmental cues with positive and negative stimuli."
The little animals were fascinating to watch. "They have such sophisticated vision," she says, "that they can watch TV." In one experiment, Cangialosi and Beth Jacob, her colleague in psychology at UMass, manipulated cricket images on television to observe the spiders observing their prey.
As KSC's first tenured woman faculty member in the natural sciences, Cangialo has served as a pioneer. Now, she says, "having four women faculty in biology has made an outstanding difference... not that we're really doing anything for women that we're not doing for guys, but we're treating them equally, which is itself unusual."
"But when all the Spiderwoman jokes have been told," says Gordon Leversee, dean of sciences, "I still find it remarkable that Dr. Cangialosi can take students on a journey of academic discovery that leads to new and exciting ideas for so many of them. I have heard students say that her classes gave them a sense, many for the first time in their lives, that they had real command of a subject, real expertise that allowed them to challenge existing ideas about how the world works. That is a powerful talent, indeed."