Learning to Avoid Predators Before You Are Born


An intriguing research topic and fascinating presentation captured the audience, much like a spider’s web captures its prey.

Dr. Matthew Persons, a professor and behavioral ecologist at Susquehanna University, used this arachnid strategy as he presented his topic entitled “Learning to Avoid Predators Before You Are Born” at the Library and Committee Faculty Scholarship event on February 1, 2016. These informal wine and cheese events provide faculty members the opportunity to present their research topics to their peers in a casual, after hours setting in the Blough-Weis Library.

Persons’ presented his research and explained how some species, like the red-eyed tree frog and the wolf spider, will demonstrate what he calls “embryo antipredator strategies.” He said, “I was intrigued how some types of creatures acquire the ability to avoid predators before they are born.” His curiosity eventually turned into a research project and he then recruited several of his biology students to assist with the many phases of the study.

The research project focused specifically on the wolf spider and how the spider embryos learn predator cues from their mothers. Person explained this “learning” occurs while the embryos are in the egg sack, which is attached to the mother’s body.

“Predator recognition mechanisms can occur before emergence,” Person affirmed, while showing evidence how spiders will hatch in less days when exposed to predator vibrations. He also described a few of the spider’s post-birth behaviors, which he described as being “mediated by olfactory cues.” He concluded by describing some of the applications of the wolf spider’s silk, acknowledging the students who assisted in the research, and providing the audience with a departing mystery. Persons declared “Research can explain how something occurs, but may not answer why it happens. Science has yet to unravel this mystery.”

The wolf spider study is not the only one of Dr. Persons’ research that contained a strange twist. During a subsequent discussion with Dr. Persons, he revealed another research oddity. A previous research trip involved Persons traveling to Puerto Rico, where he studied the island’s lizard population. This trip occurred during the pre Sept. 11, 2001, timeframe and lasted approximately a month.  His research required him to capture, catalog, and study many of the variations of lizards. At the end of his study, he made the decision to bring his specimens back to the United States, which allowed him to continue his research. Unfortunately, he was allowed to return to the states with just the two duffle bags, which he used to bring his belongings to the island. Persons said “I left all of my clothes in Puerto Rico and instead, packed up the lizards in my two duffle bags.” After his plane landed in the United States, Persons inconspicuously worked his way through customs with the two bags of lizards. Customs officers incorrectly made the assumption he was returning home with only his dirty laundry and proceeded to wave him through without inspecting his bags. “Back in the states, the one lizard lived another fourteen years in my lab,” Persons said.

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