“Along Came a Spider” Episode Transcript

Along Came a Spider

The Allure of Arachnids with Nadia Ayoub

Episode Transcript

Ruth Candler  00:14
Welcome to W&L After Class, the lifelong learning podcast. I'm your host, Ruth Candler. In every episode we'll have engaging conversations with W&L's expert faculty, bringing you again to the Colonnade even if you're hundreds of miles away, just like the conversations that happen every day after class here at W&L. You'll hear from your favorite faculty on fascinating topics and meet professors who can introduce you to new worlds and continue your journey of lifelong learning.

Our guest today is Associate Professor of Biology Nadia Ayoub. Nadia joined W&L in 2009 after getting her doctorate in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from the University of Tennessee and serving as a postdoctoral researcher and NIH fellow at the University of California Riverside. Her research combines tools from molecular biology, phylogenetics and natural history to investigate questions as farflung as symbiotic bacterial transfer and adaptive protein evolution. Her lab is full of venomous spiders, which she assures us are no threat to her students and the occasional nervous visitor. She is currently working on spider silks, especially the sticky silk spiders use to catch their prey. Nadia, we are so happy you could join us today.

Nadia Ayoub  01:38
Happy to be here.

Ruth Candler  01:40
I have had so much fun researching for this podcast. Let's begin by talking about the term "spider silk." In broad terms, would you tell us what spider silk is?

Nadia Ayoub  01:55
Well, silk is a biological material. Usually it's fibrous. We actually typically think of it being fibrous, and it's made out of proteins. That's kind of silk. Broadly.

Ruth Candler  02:11
I think everyone's familiar with silk clothing. Is there any relation to the silk used for clothing and spider silk? Or is it just the name or the same term used for two different things?

Nadia Ayoub  02:23
Yeah, they are actually similar biological materials. They did evolve independently, though. So the silk that we use to make clothing is made by silk moth caterpillars. So it's also a biological material. And caterpillars spin silk out of their salivary glands, actually, and make it into the cocoon that they wrap themselves in before they become butterflies — or moths, actually, in this case. So spiders make silks that are similar in terms of being made out of proteins, and the proteins of silk moth caterpillars and of spiders do have some similar characteristics. They're very, very long proteins, they have similar amino acids. But we think that they evolved completely independently.

Ruth Candler  03:14
Could you go into a little more detail and compare spider silks to the silks made by moths?

Nadia Ayoub  03:21
So moths actually only make really one kind of silk, that one that they use to wrap themselves up to make the cocoon, and it's a relatively weak fiber compared to some of the kinds of silks that spiders make. And so something that's really special about spiders is they actually make a lot of different kinds of silk. And each of those different kinds of silk is made of different proteins. It's only really one kind of spider silk that has similar protein attributes to silk moth caterpillars. So they can be quite different. And I think we're gonna talk about this later, but one thing that's kind of exciting is getting silk moths to make spider silk — because then it makes that silk clothing much, much stronger than what a silk moth caterpillar would normally make.

Ruth Candler  04:15
Stronger because you're combining the two silks?

Nadia Ayoub  04:18
Yeah, so, sometimes these caterpillars can express their own silk and then simultaneously they're making the spider silk gene. So we use genetic engineering and get the spider to put the... or, we put the spider gene into the silk moth. And then, so, it's essentially making the silk protein of the spider rather than its own. And silk fibers made by spiders are much, much stronger than the silk fibers made by silk moth caterpillars,

Ruth Candler  04:50
Spider silk is such a strong natural material. Are there any practical or everyday applications?

Nadia Ayoub  04:58
Yeah, so, we've actually... There's this one, this beautiful, beautiful shawl that was made. And it was really more of... I don't know how practical it is because it actually required thousands of egg cases made by a garden spider to spin the shawl, but it's just, like, shiny gold. Like it could have been spun from gold. It's gorgeous.

But, practically, people are really interested in using spider silks to make lightweight body armor, some athletic clothing, although I think that's probably a more expensive use than you would really need given that we do have really good athletic clothing already. But, like, tendons, ligaments... spider silk is a really nice scaffold for growing cells on. So if you want to make a heart, or, you know, some other organ just from cells, rather than having to get a donor, you can actually get those cells to grow on a silk scaffold. So there's a lot of interest in that kind of use for spider silk.

Ruth Candler  06:07
Wow, so medical applications.

Nadia Ayoub  06:09
A lot of medical applications. And then the Department of Defense actually funded my postdoc advisor for years and years because of all the potential applications in the military. Like I said, lightweight body armor, very lightweight ropes and cables and those kinds of things.

Ruth Candler  06:28
So, do spiders use silk for other purposes beyond web building?

Nadia Ayoub  06:34
So spiders definitely use silk for a lot of purposes. Their web, in fact, actually includes multiple kinds of silk, not... So, there's the really, really strong one, and that's probably what you think of when you see a spider hanging. It's called the dragline, and in an orb web, it would make the radial lines of the web, and it's giving the strength to that web. Or if you've ever seen, like, a spider web in the corner of your house, from one of those little house spiders, those make a cobweb. That's all this really strong dragline silk.

But that web has other kinds of silk too. So one is that silk that's going to catch prey, and it's super stretchy rather than being really strong. So it's like a net, that if an insect flies into it, it's gonna stretch rather than being very strong and the insect bouncing off of that superstrong silk. And then that capture spiral that's stretchy, it's also coated in silk glue, which is a liquid silk, which I can talk more about later, maybe, since that's, like, my primary interest right now. So at least four kinds of silk that are even just in the web itself for catching prey.

But in addition, spiders do use silk to wrap their egg cases. And some spiders actually use two kinds of silk to wrap their eggs. They put like a light, flocculent silk immediately around the eggs, and then they put this thicker, tougher silk around the outside of the egg case. And we think that's, you know, to protect the egg case if it falls, or from wasps that like to lay their eggs in spider egg cases or, you know, lots of things would like to eat spider eggs, they're yummy and soft and delicious and full of nutrition.

Ruth Candler  08:25
[laughter] I'm not sure I'd use the term yummy, but you're the researcher!

Nadia Ayoub  08:28
Well, if you were a bird, or a fly, or a wasp, you would think they're really delicious! So egg cases, what else... Oh, kind of a really fun one is males use, they make what's called a sperm web. So they actually spin this little web and then they put their sperm into the web. And then they have to suck up the sperm with these little front legs called pedipalps so that they can then inseminate the female because they don't have the same kind of structures we have where you can do direct transfer of sperm. They actually have to make this little sperm web first. And there's more.

Ruth Candler  09:07
It sounds like there are many, many uses. So I want to back up a little bit and talk about how spiders use their silk to spin webs. Do all spiders spin webs?

Nadia Ayoub  09:22
No, definitely not. Definitely not all spiders spin webs. So right now I'm working on a group of spiders — it's a very large group of spiders, includes about a quarter of all species — and we think that ancestrally they all built webs, but actually some of those spiders have lost web building or have really reduced it where they might just have a few lines and not really use that silk to capture prey. Also, there's this huge group of spiders, it's probably the most diverse group of spiders, that has almost completely... most of the spiders in this group have abandoned web building. Again, we think ancestrally they probably built webs because there's little pockets of groups in there that do build webs, but... Let's think about jumping spiders. They don't build a capture web. They sit and wait and jump on their prey. Or wolf spiders don't build webs, but there's thousands of species of jumping spiders, thousands of species of wolf spiders.

Ruth Candler  10:25
Like most people, I've walked through my share of spider webs, and some webs seem so large or one-dimensional and pristine, while others seem very multilayered and thick and even dirty. I'm actually looking at one right now that's at the base of my window. Can you tell by looking at the web what kind of spider might live there?

Nadia Ayoub  10:51
So you could get it down to, like, a broad category of spiders. So we actually... we talk about orb web weaving spiders, or we talk about cobweb weaving spiders, or funnel web weaving spiders, but those are really broad categories. So you're probably, I don't know... Do you have an orb web in your window which is like the wagon wheel shaped...

Ruth Candler  11:14
No, it's multilayered and dirty, and it's almost... it's not transparent, so it' s like...

Nadia Ayoub  11:20
You probably have a cobweb, maybe.

Ruth Candler  11:22
Okay. It looks... I mean, I've always called it a cobweb, but I wasn't sure if it really is a cobweb.

Nadia Ayoub  11:27
Yeah, so you probably have a cobweb. So in Virginia, if it's a cobweb, it could be a house spider. That would be a really likely choice. It could be a false black widow. It's possible. Those are usually smaller spiders, so if you can't see the spider, it might be a false black widow.

Ruth Candler  11:50
I have looked for the spider and I cannot find it.

Nadia Ayoub  11:52
Yeah, so black widows are another cobweb weaving species we have in Virginia. But they tend to make bigger webs, and I have not seen them building outside of windows, or outside of houses.

Ruth Candler  12:04
It's kind of on the inside-outside of the window.

Nadia Ayoub  12:07
It's probably either a house spider or false black widow.

Ruth Candler  12:10

Nadia Ayoub  12:11
So yeah, you can. But then, if I were to go somewhere else there could be just, like... There are thousands of species of cobweb weavers, so I wouldn't necessarily be able to say, "Yeah, it's probably a house spider."

Ruth Candler  12:26
Alright. So on a different note, I have a very large, artistic web on our side porch. It's gorgeous. But, unfortunately, it's right in line of our doorway, and it gets knocked down every day. Why do spiders rebuild webs in the same place over and over again, even if something like, you know, a person knocks down the web every time?

Nadia Ayoub  12:52
Yeah, so think about it from the perspective of the spider, and when it's built that web and what it's using it for, right? So probably that's an orb web would be my guess. And she has probably built that web in the night, and she has probably already caught all the prey that she's going to catch on that web overnight.

And for a lot of orb weavers, you know, once the sun comes up, they crawl into a corner and hide and they don't come out until it gets dark again. And then they'll eat their web and build a new one. So if you knock it down, that's a little, you know, it's a little bit of a loss for her. But if it's a good spot to catch prey, then she's gonna keep building her web there.

Ruth Candler  13:34
Logical spider thought.

Nadia Ayoub  13:38
They do abandon, eventually, like, jump ship, they're like, "I haven't gotten anything here, I gotta go somewhere else."

Ruth Candler  13:44
I keep hoping this spider would abandon, but she's not. So when I was reading about spiders for the podcast, I was struck by the incredible biological and behavioral diversity among them, you know, from huge tarantulas throwing barbed hairs to tiny jumping spiders, which you had mentioned earlier. And I didn't realize there were so many different kinds of spiders, and that they behaved so differently from each other. When you consider these biological or behavioral differences, what stands out to you the most?

Nadia Ayoub  14:19
Oh, gosh. So yeah, there are so many. It's hard to, like, choose just one. So there are some behaviors that I just think are fun and funny. Like there's these jumping spiders that are very, very colorful, the males are very colorful, and they do these dances, they lift up their legs, and they display their beautiful colors, and they drum, and that's to attract the female over to mate. Oh, and I mean, they can spend hours just dancing for the female to try to get her to come join him.

Ruth Candler  14:56
And I've heard that if females don't like their dance, they may eat them. Is that true?

Nadia Ayoub  15:02
They might. Yeah, they might.

Ruth Candler  15:07
I also read somewhere that the male dance resembles the Village People YMCA dance.

Nadia Ayoub  15:13
Oh, yeah, some of them do! They're like, "Woo! YMCA!" [laughter]

Ruth Candler  15:20
So you've talked about weavers, you've talked about jumpers. And so why are some spiders web weavers and others hunters? So in other words, why do some spiders cast nets, while others chase down their prey? It's almost like you could compare them to a fisherman versus a hunter.

Nadia Ayoub  15:40
Yeah, so you can also think about it, like, we don't want to put all our eggs in one basket necessarily. But that's, you know, that's for us within a single species where, you know, if you have some people who catch fish and other people who hunt deer, then that's more resources for everybody, right?

But for spiders, they don't have that luxury of, like, I'm gonna make a choice about being a hunter or a web builder. It's the luck of the draw of evolutionary history, essentially. We think that silk building was something that allowed spiders, you know, big evolutionary success, that spiders are much more diverse than their closest arachnid relatives. And silk and venom probably contributed to them being able to just diversify and spread across the globe.

But then you have to think about, even though the silk web seems amazing for catching prey, and really does seem to help them, it's also metabolically expensive to make a web. So the silk is made of protein, and they have to put... they have to give a lot of resources to be able to make that web. And for most spiders, it pays off. Like, the amount of prey they're going to catch is going to pay off what they're putting into building their silk. But now imagine, luck of the draw, you're a spider that stops, you know, builds less of a web, but now has some new behavior, like jumping or whatever, that allows them to catch their prey without the metabolic expense of building a web. That could be advantageous for that individual spider. And it could leave a lot of offspring, right, and then it spreads from there.

And so we do think that in this large group of wandering spiders, like jumping spiders and wolf spiders, that not having to make a silk web actually was a big advantage for them. And they were able then to diversify into these thousands of species that we see now. So it's kind of luck of the draw, what was your evolutionary history?

Ruth Candler  17:55
Are there any spiders that do both?

Nadia Ayoub  17:57
Well, a lot of male spiders will build webs when they're young, and then when they mature, they'll abandon their web and go off and search for females. But in those species, they tend to not eat very much. They're actually very bad at catching prey without a web. Sometimes you'll see a male eat on a female's web if he's abandoned web building and gone in search of females. But I don't know of any species that regularly do both.

Ruth Candler  18:27
It's like the male being a spider squatter, or something.

Nadia Ayoub  18:30
Yeah, yeah. Oh, yeah, absolutely.

Ruth Candler  18:34
All right. Since we're discussing spider behavior, I have to bring this up. I read that depending on the species, the female spider will eat the male spider before, during or after copulation? Is that how the black widow spider got her name?

Nadia Ayoub  18:54
That is definitely how the black widow spider got her name. [laughter] But even in black widows, there's actually... Oh, gosh, I don't want to tell you the exact number of species of black widows, but I think it's 12 at least, and they don't all eat the male when they mate. You're right, like, some of them, if they're hungry and they've already mated, they're like, get out of my web, I'm just gonna eat you and they don't do anything. Some male black widows actually have this whole ritual where they climb on the female and they flip their abdomen over so that their abdomen's in the female's mouth, and so he's inseminating her while she eats his abdomen. Great strategy, huh?

Ruth Candler  19:40
It sounds like a Stephen King novel or something. There's a good novel in there somewhere. You also research spiders' circadian rhythms. And as I remember, in the story of "Charlotte's Web," Charlotte hardly ever slept. So what is a day in the life of a spider like?

Nadia Ayoub  20:02
I love "Charlotte's Web."

Ruth Candler  20:04
Oh, I do too!

Nadia Ayoub  20:04
There are so many things that are, like, sort of realistic about spiders in that book. And then there's the things that are, like, not realistic at all, right?

Ruth Candler  20:14
Like the fact that she talks, or there's a talking pig. [laughter]

Nadia Ayoub  20:19
Or that she can write words. But, you know, like, spiders, orb weaving spiders, do write in their webs. They do. They even have a special kind of silk that they use to write in their webs. And there's all this controversy about, like, what is it that they're doing with that zigzag that's in their web?

But spiders spend most of their time not doing anything at all, right, just, like, sitting there waiting. So that's not technically sleep, the way we think of sleep, but they're not really doing anything. They're resting. But what's interesting is that they do have cyclic behaviors, daily behaviors that they do pretty much at the same time every day. And they'll do them whether there's light cues or not. You can put them in constant darkness, and they'll still do these behaviors at pretty much the same time every day. So depending on the species — like I was saying about your spider that's on your porch, she probably comes out a little bit after dark, builds her web, she sits on it, she waits for prey to fly into her web, and she will only move from the center of that web if an insect flies into it, right. And then she'll go, you know, morning comes... or even before morning, she'll go and get into her retreat, and wait for the night to come. That same species, depending on which species it is, turn off the lights, she'll still do that. But it might not be every 24 hours.

And this is kind of the really cool thing about spiders. You know, if you are a human, and you are put in constant dim light or — not quite constant darkness, we haven't ever done that to anybody — but constant dim light, they'll go to sleep about every 24 hours, you know, like 10 o'clock at night, whatever it is, if that's when you went to sleep, day one, you're gonna do it day two, day three, day four, you're gonna wake up about eight hours later, whatever your sleep pattern is, right? With a little bit of variation. So a human might go to sleep a couple minutes earlier, or a couple minutes later, but never more than like 30 minutes different from 24 hours, you know. We're really close to what the 24-hour day is. But a spider, depending on the species, if you put it in constant dark, it could do that behavior every 17 hours, which is very, very short. We don't see that in a lot of species. No mammal would do that ever.

And so it was kind of, like, this bizarre finding that they would do this same behavior in the constant dark every 17 hours. That's not what we expected. And then another species of spider could do their web building every 29 hours. So spiders have these really interesting circadian behaviors that, when there's light cues, they're tied to that light cue, but you take away that light, and their cyclic behaviors may not be like we always think of as circadian.

And I have to put in a plug here now for my colleague Natalia Toporikova, who, if you are interested in circadian rhythms and behavior, you need to talk to her because she is definitely the one who actually models the physiology and the behaviors. And the whole reason I even got into circadian behaviors was that we were mentoring a student, a neuroscience student who was her advisee. But he'd been working in my lab and he was like, "I want to do a neuroscience honors thesis. But I want to keep working on spiders." And so Natalia was like, "Well, what do we know about circadian behavior in spiders?" And it turned out that I had a colleague who is the person working on circadian behavior in spiders, and it became this big collaboration and I'm really kind of, like, a side person on it. I just love it. It's fascinating. It's not my main area of research.

Ruth Candler  24:31
Well, I love how it began with a student and their interests and that you as professors tailored the course of study to that. That's unique and one of the wonderful things about W&L.

Nadia Ayoub  24:48
And definitely one of the reasons I love this job, just...

Ruth Candler  24:51
Yeah. Many people, or maybe even most people, have a fear of spiders. Why? Why do you think people are so afraid?

Nadia Ayoub  25:00
Great question. And I'm going to tell my kids that they should do research on that. [laughter] But I do... I have ideas.

Ruth Candler  25:12
So... evolutionary? Or do you think that we all just grew up listening to scary spider stories?

Nadia Ayoub  25:18
I think both probably contribute, honestly. So this research hasn't been done with spiders, but with snakes, primates in general are scared of snakes. Like, there seems to be an innate fear. Chimpanzees and gorillas will jump or try to avoid snakes. And you know, if we think about snakes, some of them are quite dangerous, quite venomous and really could be very dangerous to us. So having an innate avoidance behavior might evolve, right? And it seems to have in primates.

Spiders, they're not as dangerous as snakes, honestly. But there are a few species that are quite venomous and could cause some damage. So it's possible that we have this innate evolved response to be a little bit scared of spiders. Honestly, though, I think that a lot of it is cultural for us, where we've been told spiders are scary, spiders are gross, oh my God, stay away from spiders. You see your mom jump and sweep the spider away, and so that's why they're terrified of spiders.

Ruth Candler  26:32
Someone once told me that wolf spiders, like the really big ones, can live to be several years old. What is it about wolf spiders that enables them to have such a relatively long lifespan?

Nadia Ayoub  26:45
So wolf spiders, tarantulas can also live... some tarantulas could live 10 years in the wild. So we're not entirely sure, like, why is it that some species can live a long time and others can't? It's, you know, one of those things we ask about ourselves too, like, why do humans live to their... can live to their 90s versus chimpanzees very rarely live past 40. You know, we have very similar biology in many ways, but we have a much, much longer lifespan.

So there probably is some trade-off, you know, like, you get older, you can have more kids. Maybe you raise them. Well, spiders do — not really parental care, but they, you know, carry their egg sack around on their abdomens, the babies live on their heads. So maybe having that longer life, you know, allows for some of that parental care to happen. And that might offset the cost of aging to some extent. They may also be better at getting under leaves, finding places to overwinter. It's hard to know. I mean, black widows we think of as being annual, like, they don't live more than a year in the wild. But in my lab, I've had black widows that have lived three, four years no problem. So it's not necessarily something about their biology that's keeping them from... that's making them die. Whereas it could just be they don't have the conditions that allow them to live, or they're not going to make it, like prey, you know, they're going to get eaten by a bird or whatever.

Ruth Candler  28:27
You have a very safe and comfy spider home.

Nadia Ayoub  28:30
Oh, it's so, so comfy. So comfy.

Ruth Candler  28:34
So, Nadia, I've been working on your podcast for a few weeks, and I have to say that now when I come across a spider I slow down and watch it for a while. I can see why you find them so fascinating. I'd like to change the topic here slightly and move more toward your research. What inspired you to begin studying spiders?

Nadia Ayoub  29:00
I wish I could say that I was, like, the kid who loves spiders and had to have the spider in the house and all of that. [laughter] Actually, like, my only claim to working with arthropods at all is that when I was a kid my brother would be like, "Oh, my God, there's a grasshopper come kill it, Nadia! Come get it out of the house!" So I was the resident, like, not-afraid-of-arthropods person and it was usually grasshoppers. He was terrified of grasshoppers. Yeah. I didn't really think about it.

I went to college thinking, "Oh, maybe I'll study autism. Maybe I'll be a doctor." I mean, I loved... I didn't know if I was any good at science, but I loved genetics. I thought it was really interesting. I had terrible science education up to that point. And my advisor was like, "Oh, why don't you try the pre-med track if you're interested in autism?" And so I started taking... I took biology and chemistry, and I really liked my science classes. I just really liked them. And I ended up in an ecology class, I just loved this class. The professor was really funny, and we had these labs, where... I've never been out walking in the woods, and, like, had somebody actually tell me, like, this is what this tree is, and this is what this insect is. And it just, like, opened up this huge world for me of, "Whoa, science is cool. And the natural world is really cool. And I had no clue for all these years what was out here."

And that professor asked me to come work in his lab, and he studied parasitic wasps. I had dreams about wasps coming out of my arms for years. But the cool thing about working in his lab was I realized that, you know, there... arthropods are so diverse, and they're all over the globe. And they've evolved so many kinds of adaptations, and you are allowed to do pretty much anything you want to with them, you know. So, like, as a scientist who wants to do experimentation, arthropods are definitely the group to work in.

So when I was looking for graduate programs, I knew I wanted to work in a lab that used arthropods as a system. And I was just looking for labs that studied local adaptation. And I really wanted to get into the genetics of what makes something work, right. And I applied to a number of different labs, and I ended up just really liking this lab that worked on spiders. And she had these really cool systems where they had these local adaptations, where the spiders that live next to creeks were, you know, they were just inundated with prey and they were very shy and they would barely ever come out of their web. And then, the same species a few miles away would be in the desert, and it was very dry, they didn't get a lot of prey, and they were so aggressive. Like, you threw anything on the web, they would just run out and come get it and it seemed to be a genetically driven difference.

And so I was really intrigued by the system and wanted to understand, like, what could be the genetics of these different behaviors. I ended up not figuring it out [laughter]. But I did a lot of other cool things with spiders, and I always say, like, if I had ended up in the cricket lab — which was my second choice — that, like, I would just be so into crickets now and singing the praises of cricket songs [laughter]. But I got into a spider lab, and spiders, like, once you just start learning about something, it... for me, at least, I just wanted to learn more. Like I always end up feeling like, "The more I learn, the less I know," which is, like, so cliché but it's really true. Like, I just... More questions and more excitement and more curiosity about "What could these spiders be doing? And how is it that they are so successful, and there are so many different species, and they can make so many kinds of silk?" And, yeah. So that's how I got into spiders.

Ruth Candler  33:06
So how do you conduct your research, then? How do you collect the silks of spiders?

Nadia Ayoub  33:13
I collect the silk from webs. It's kind of fun. You can tape a spider down with its abdomen up, and it's always trailing a little bit of that dragline silk — that's why it's called the dragline, because they're always trailing a little bit of it — and so that means that you can take that silk that's coming out already and start to pull it and reel it out of the spider. And so that's one way people get silk, actually. The only kind of silk you can do that way is the dragline, because it's the one that they're always trailing. And a lot of people are really interested in that kind of silk because it's the strongest kind of silk. I never had done that. I'd seen my... like, people in my lab do it — it's pretty crazy. And for... I mean, you can get meters of silk this way.

But I am currently really interested in the sticky silk that they put on their web to catch prey. And that is not something you... They control that. They have pretty good muscular control over using that sticky, gluey silk. And so I have spiders, I have cobweb weavers in my lab in these critter keepers in black rectangular boxes, and I can pull the little cardboard box out. And the cobweb weavers put their glue on these bottom lines. And I have these special little collectors that we use to get the silk out of the bottom of their web. Orb web weavers, some of them will not build in the lab, but right now I actually have 10, so if anybody wants to come visit, and see my spiders...

Ruth Candler  35:03
We do have Parents and Family Weekend open house next weekend, so...

Nadia Ayoub  35:05
That's right. So come visit. Yes. You need to make an appointment, though.

Ruth Candler  35:11
How do you collect silk from a black widow without getting bitten?

Nadia Ayoub  35:15
Oh, well, so black widows are very shy. So they would much rather hang out in their little retreat if you're messing around in their web. So we do... I have these little cardboard E-shaped collectors that I attach to metal clips. And so I'm holding the metal clip, or the student's holding the metal clip, the thing touching the web is the cardboard, and very, very rarely does the spider show any interest in what you're doing. She's scared. She's hiding out in the corner. Every once in a while, you get this little tremor, or you're, like, trying to cut the line — I have a little tiny pair of scissors, and I'm cutting the line away from the main web — and every once in a while, she'll be like, "Oh, you're an insect." And so she'll want to come down, she'll come check it out. Usually I'll just blow on the web and she'll just run back. I had one who was really eager this week, and I dropped everything, and she ran away.

Ruth Candler  36:18
So have you ever been bitten by a spider?

Nadia Ayoub  36:20
Oh, no. No, no. I mean, 20-plus years of working with spiders, live spiders, and never never. I mean, I don't touch them with my bare hands, right? You know, I've always got something between me and the spider because, like, there's no reason to play with fate. And I don't even know... Like, none of my colleagues have ever been bitten by a spider.

Ruth Candler  36:43
You involve students in a lot of your research. How do you help them learn to love spiders?

Nadia Ayoub  36:51
Well, they don't all learn to love spiders. [laughter] But it's true that very few of them come in loving spiders. I can count two on my hand that came in loving spiders. But most of them do come to appreciate spiders and some to even love spiders. I have one student who told me he was afraid of spiders before he came to work in my lab, and by the end of the summer, he had purchased himself a tarantula to keep at home, and he was sending me updates on her. And he doesn't even work in the lab anymore, but I still get pictures!

Ruth Candler  37:38
I wouldn't take it that far. But I have to say that I do have a new appreciation for spiders after this podcast.

Nadia Ayoub  37:44
So I think, you know, they're their own best... whatever the word is, like, diplomats, or... I really do think if you make people aware, if you give them an opportunity to experience something, that most people will appreciate it and want to know more. I really do think, and it's... I mean, our students are so smart and curious, like, once you give them something, a little bit of something to start with, they just want to know more. And so I feel fortunate that that's the human condition and that we have such great students.

But they do have to have a willingness, you know, and I have had some students who really are just so afraid that, you know, they said, "I love genetics," you know, "I want to do genetics work with you. But I cannot work with a live spider." And even for them, you know, they have to come in the lab, they see the spiders in the lab, they see that the spiders don't get away. And for a lot of them, even they will get over a lot of that fear. They may never come to the point where they want to have a spider in their own house to keep as a pet... [laughter] I would have to think that would be the minority. But, I mean, you know, it's always... It's wonderful when a student who's told me, like, "I'm terrified of spiders," like, by the time they're done working with me, they've caught black widows! I mean... and that's happened a couple of times, so...

Ruth Candler  39:15
Well, before we wrap up, let's talk a little more about you. What do... How do people react when they find out what you do for a living?

Nadia Ayoub  39:25
Oh, the first thing they always tell me is say, "Come to my house, come to my house! I have so many spiders!" [laughter]

Ruth Candler  39:33
Yeah, I'd have to admit how many cobwebs I have in my house. So I don't think I'm willing to do that yet. So have you heard the "fun fact" that every human accidentally swallows around eight spiders a year in their sleep? I'm hoping that you're going to tell us that's a myth.

Nadia Ayoub  39:53
As far as I know, that's a myth. I don't think there's any evidence to support that claim at all. [laughter] I mean, spiders, if you walk outside your house, spiders are everywhere. But that does not mean they're falling into your mouth at night. It would be extremely unlikely. A spider in your house is trying to catch insects. It's not trying to go anywhere near you.

Ruth Candler  40:19
That is a relief. So in the spirit of Halloween: You're clearly not afraid of spiders. Are there any insects that you are afraid of?

Nadia Ayoub  40:29
Okay, I have to admit that caterpillars gross me out.

Ruth Candler  40:34
Caterpillars? They're so cute and fluffy.

Nadia Ayoub  40:37
So I did this research project when I was an undergraduate where I had to keep moth caterpillars on this diet. And they pooped and they grew fungus, and they were so gross. They were so gross. Now a caterpillar in the wild is okay. I'm fine with that.

Ruth Candler  41:02
I don't think I'm ever going to look at a caterpillar quite the same.

Nadia Ayoub  41:06
I will tell you I'm afraid of snakes. I mean...

Ruth Candler  41:09
Are you?

Nadia Ayoub  41:09
I cannot seem to get over it. I took herpetology to try to overcome the fear, and it did help. And I can now, like... If I see it, I can look at it. I can even pick it up, if I know what species it is. But if I turn a rock over and there's a snake there, I will jump straight in the air and scream.

Ruth Candler  41:34
Well, from what you said earlier that sounds like a natural and positive behavior.

Nadia Ayoub  41:39
I would like to believe that I'm not just bound by my culture.

Ruth Candler  41:45
So what do you do for fun when you're not chasing down spiders?

Nadia Ayoub  41:49
Oh, sometimes that's fun. But, you know, I love to read. That's something I've always, always loved. I love science fiction and I love fantasy. I just... I love to read, and that's probably what I would do, given a day where I didn't have anything I had to do. Also I love hiking, hanging out with my kids and swimming and all kinds of fun things like that.

Ruth Candler  42:15
Well, your husband also works in the biology department at W&L. Do your children share the love of science?

Nadia Ayoub  42:22
Oh, they do. [laughter] But they do not ever want to be a professor. They're like, "This is way too much work!"

Ruth Candler  42:30
What's your dinnertime conversation like with them?

Nadia Ayoub  42:34
Oh, well, my oldest son, he's so funny. So sometimes it really is something about, you know, like, science. He'll be like, "Oh, did you know this about black holes?" and he'll, like... I mean, he'll tell me all kinds of details about black holes. Or the younger one is really interested now in psychology and science and he's like, "You know, Mom, you only wear those glasses so you feel like a scientist." [laughter]

Ruth Candler  43:04
Psychoanalyzing the mother. So, Nadia, thank you for joining us today. We appreciate the enlightening information about spiders, and hopefully everybody can have a little bit of a different perspective when they come across a spider again.

Nadia Ayoub  43:22
Thanks for having me.

Ruth Candler  43:23
And I want to thank you, lifelong learner, for listening today. You can find out more on today's fascinating topic as well as a truly great selection of other W&L After Class sessions that cover everything from witches to Salvador Dali and the pursuit of happiness. Visit our website wlu.edu/lifelong. Take a look, and until next time, let's remain together not unmindful of the future.