Spidernauts: when thousands of kids followed a spider’s journey into space

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I’ve never experienced microgravity. But a red-backed jumping spider called Nefertiti did.

Living vicariously through Nefertiti were over 2,000 middle school students who watched the arachnid’s adventures.

As true experimenters, the kids maintained control groups on Earth: their own hand-caught spiders, housed in salad-box habitats. This is the story of “spidernauts,” the intrepid spider astronauts, and the young scientists-in-training that they inspired.

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Nefertiti in search for flies in her space habitat. Photo by NASA via Wtop.

A spider, a human and their epic journeys

I first learned about Nefertiti’s journey while on an excursion of my own. It was in the midst of rockets, gears, and artifacts that I explored NASA’s Johnson Space Center as an envoy from Owen Software. Trying to soak all in, I attempted to decipher Soyuz’s panels in Cyrillic alphabet while also learning about non-human travelers deliberately sent to the space station. Each trip sends a crew of three Homo sapiens, a handful of Arabidopsis, C. elegans, Drosophila and several other species to space.  It is an exceptional opportunity to study the effects of microgravity on living beings. For example, the zebrafish (Danio rerio) is our vertebrate proxy for the study of bone development in absence or gravity.

Until recently, the use of NASA’s studies was limited to academics—scientists who can interpret the results in the published data. The space station website keeps a list of publications, but as Jean Flanagan discussed last week, there’s still a chasm between available data and data that can be translated to a middle or high school classroom.

But something changed, and that change was personified by arthropod ambassadors flying into space. Butterflies and spiders were sent to the space station and this time, thousands of middle school children watched. On Earth, the students conducted their own experiments with these butterflies and spiders.

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Red-backed jumping spider. Photo by NASA.

“Different habitats, similar beasts.”

That is how Chris Buddle, arachnologist and professor at McGill University, describes the two species of spidernauts. The pair was composed of Nefertiti, the red-backed (Phidippus johnsoni), and her companion Cleopatra, a zebra jumping spider (Salticus scenicus).

The idea of observing jumping spiders was actually proposed by an Egyptian student as part of a contest. Jumping spiders are active hunters, who dart over unsuspecting prey—as opposed to catching them in a silk web like most familiar spiders. The main goal of the jumping spider study was to investigate how their predatory behavior be affected by microgravity. Would the spiders be able to leap?

On the phone, Buddle sounded enthusiastic about the project, but unsurprised with the spider’s ability to adapt to microgravity.

“They have draglines, micro hairs on their feet … and exceptional eyesight. Their body responds quickly to directionality, doesn’t matter whether they are in a horizontal surface or vertical surface.”

And it turns out he was right: the spiders were able to move around, leap, hunt and feed.

From space to the classroom

The spider’s scientific adventure was chronicled by Moreno and colleagues in “Butterflies and Spiders in Space: Space Life Science Investigations for the Classroom.” In summary, the study reports that 3,000 teachers and an estimated 180,000 middle school students worldwide followed the extraordinary lives of those arachnids, using internet lessons via BioEd Online.

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Students study painted lady butterfly larvae at Rodriguez Elementary School, Houston, TX. Photo credit: Delinda Mock, via NASA.

BioEd Online is an initiative by Baylor College of Medicine, designed to address needs of science teachers and help them spice up their lessons. The site has teaching materials, powerpoint slides, videos, online courses and podcasts. While Nefertiti was in her space home on the space station, BioEd Online offered videos, images, and lessons on space spiders. In one of the videos, “DIY Spider Habitat,” kids learn how to repurpose a plastic salad box into a spider home on Earth. (Check out the wonderful teacher’s guide.) But Nefertiti is not the first to star in online lessons; a previous space investigation with Painted Lady Butterflies paved the way to following space animals with live educational lessons.

The benefits of this project are immense. By creating their own experiments, students start to experience science. According to a poll taken after the experiment was over, 80% of participating students showed interest in science careers, and 39% found extra ways to contribute to the experiments, “such as writing poetry, using measurement data for math problems in an Algebra class, planting a butterfly garden, and keeping butterfly journals,” teachers reported.

After space, the spider’s final destination: the Insect Zoo

Nefertiti currently resides in Dan Babbit’s freezer. The entomologist, who also manages the Smithsonian’s Insect Zoo, told me of the third leg of Nefertiti’s journey. “We got an email out of the blue from Bioserve—the company that put together the spider unit.” In a mix of surprise and astonishment, Babbitt reminisces: “this spider should go somewhere.”

This is how Nefertiti ended up at the Insect Zoo. “I was surprised with the amount of interest that people had,” said Babbitt about the crowd Nefertiti drew in the brief weeks before the spider’s death of natural causes.

Babbitt is currently trying to preserve Nefertiti, so that she can continue to inspire museum visitors—both children and adults.

“One of the big things we push throughout the museum is observation—anything we can do to help people look more closely at an object or specimen or the living insect.”

Chris Buddle believes Nefertiti and the spidernauts are a wonderful, compelling story.

“The fact that there are spidernauts is something that thrills me.”

In his blog, he tries to demystify the public’s phobia surrounding the arachnids.

“There’s a lot of fear, and the best way to battle fear in science is with stories, facts and evidence.”

 

References:

Moreno NP, Vogt GL, Denk JP, Stodieck LS, Countryman S, Thomson WA.  Butterflies and Spiders in Space: Space Life Science Investigations for the Classroom. Gravitational and Space Biology. 2012; 26(1): 77 – 87.

Moreno NP, Erdmann DB.  Addressing Science Teacher Needs. Science. 2010; 327: 1589-1560. DOI:10.1126/science.1182432.

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