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Paleontology student centers studies on spiders

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

You could call him the real Spider Man. Deep in the basement of Lindley Hall, one Ph.D. student in the KU Geology Department is your go-to for all things arachnids. Matthew Downen can tell you anything you want to know about spiders, and even has a few of them in his lab (both fossilized and living). We caught up with the Paleontology major as he gears up for Arachtober.

Tell us what you do in the basement of Lindley Hall:

“My lab is in the basement and is where I do most of my research. It’s full of live and dead arachnids. I have mostly spiders including a black widow, brown recluses and wolf spiders— but also other arachnids, including a scorpion and a vinegaroon. My collection of dead (preserved) and fossil spiders are in there too.” 

How does this relate to your work in the KU Geology Department?

“I study fossil and modern spiders to answer questions related to how diversity and ecosystems have changed through time and how spiders end up preserved in the fossil record. My research is specifically focused on fossil spiders preserved in ancient lake deposits.”

Why did you decide to start working with spiders?

“I knew I wanted to study paleontology, but did not know what specifically until I met my advisor, Dr. Paul Selden. He basically asked, ‘Do you like spiders? How much do you know about spiders? Do you want to work on some fossil spiders?’ I already liked spiders, but didn't know much about them as fossils. Now I'm obsessed. Spiders are so diverse and so many have wild looks (ike the Peacock spider) and weird behaviors (like the ogre-faced net-casting spider). The fossils are just as cool.” 

Do you have a favorite one?

My favorite spider is the Peacock spider. They're fabulous and they have sweet dance moves.”

What are the best reactions you’ve seen from people when you tell them about your work with arachnids?

People either react with horror and disgust or tell me about some experience they've had with a spider. My favorite experience was at a party full of lawyers and we witnessed a large orbweaver spider capture a giant butterfly in it's web. Everyone screamed and pulled out their phones to video it. Someone who knew I studied spiders turned around and pointed their phone at me and said, ‘Matt Downen, as an arachnologist, do you have any commentary?’ All the other phones pointed to me and I felt like a celebrity.”

Why do you think people should be more interested in learning about spiders?

“Spiders have been around a long time, and will continue to be around long into the future. They are a very important component in ecosystems, eating tons of insect pests, and have other applications to industrial and medical fields. They are also a great group to study diversity (there are over 48,000 species!). You'd be surprised how many different types of spiders there are, and almost everyone could find a particular spider they think is cool.”

Many people get a little spooked when they see a spider. What do you say to those with reservations?

“There are no spiders that want to hurt you. The VAST MAJORITY of spiders cannot hurt you. Even the ones that potentially could, are very unlikely to do so. Definitely leave spiders that spin webs alone because they are catching lots of bugs, and jumping spiders are cute. If you see a spider just take a breath and realize you are not in danger. The spider is just trying to live its life, so leave it be and live yours.”

Matt and his eight-legged friends will be at two museum events this month with arachnids. He’ll be bringing Fossil Arachnids to Discovery Day on October 20th, and live arachnids at Macabre at the Museum on October 17th. Both events are at the KU Natural History Museum, 1345 Jayhawk Blvd.

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