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Dakota Wesleyan’s ‘spider dude,’ students identifying hundreds of species

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the second in a four-part series on undergraduate research at Dakota Wesleyan University. Brian Patrick's research has a "really good 'ew' factor." Patrick, who just started his eighth year at Dakota Wesleyan University, sp...

Seniors Kayla Olson, left, and Alecia VanTassel, right, work together to try and identify a spider at the research labs at Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell. They are two of three students working with Professor Brian Patrick to study spiders this year. (Sarah Barclay/Republic)
Seniors Kayla Olson, left, and Alecia VanTassel, right, work together to try and identify a spider at the research labs at Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell. They are two of three students working with Professor Brian Patrick to study spiders this year. (Sarah Barclay/Republic)
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EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the second in a four-part series on undergraduate research at Dakota Wesleyan University.

Brian Patrick's research has a "really good 'ew' factor."

Patrick, who just started his eighth year at Dakota Wesleyan University, spends about 10 hours each week in the lab of Glenda K. Corrigan Health Sciences Center researching an eight-legged organism - spiders.

"It's fun. I get paid to be 5," Patrick said. "I get to go outside and look in the dirt and crawl around and play with bugs and spiders."

He currently has three active projects, each led by an undergraduate student.

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The first project is led by Alecia VanTassel, a senior wildlife management major at Dakota Wesleyan. She's been working with Patrick for three years, and this is her fourth semester working on this specific project identifying spiders.

VanTassel spends her hours in the lab looking at hundreds of species of spiders, mainly from South Dakota, under a microscope, analyzing and identifying each one.

Patrick's main focus is biodiversity, inventory and discovery and it's his goal is to find all types of spiders, look at their location and their habitats. Patrick said by the time he's done, he estimates he'll find 20 or 30 new spider species new to the state.

"I think it's important for people to know that these spiders do more than annoy them and get in their house and creep them out," Patrick said. "They actually play a functional role."

Patrick said spiders have a medical, agricultural, environmental and economic impact on society. As Patrick and VanTassel continue to identify more spiders and their habitat, they can create a detailed list describing the different families and species of spiders. Doctors could use this list as a resource to refer to when treating spider bites.

Spiders also play an important role in agriculture, because they are natural predators, Patrick said. Increasing the number of spiders in farmer's fields, can help decrease the number of pests. This can help increase harvest yields and have an economic impact, Patrick said.

But before all of this can happen, the first step is identifying the spiders.

Patrick's second project is led by Kayla Olson, a senior biology major at Dakota Wesleyan. Olson is charged with the task of extracting DNA from spiders found all over North America.

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The spiders in Olson's project are only one to two millimeters fully grown. Under the microscope, Olson carefully extracts a few of the legs of the spider, as to not destroy the entire specimen. They then create a DNA barcode from the sample, build a "tree of life" and see how each species has evolved.

"I like to see how it all comes together," Olson said. "It's basically going to show a life tree and how everything comes together and what is similar to each other."

The third project is led by biochemistry major Nick Woslum, a junior at Dakota Wesleyan. He's working on spiders specifically from Maine, sent to Patrick from a colleague. Many of the spiders are new species and Patrick has had them since 2008. After years of sitting in a box, now, the spiders are being identified and described by Woslum.

Patrick said all three of his students should end up with publishable results by the end of their projects. He also has set a goal to have all three students near completion of the projects by next summer for the annual American Arachnological Society meeting in Mexico. Even though VanTassel and Olson will be graduated, he'd like each of the three students to present at the conference.

"I really like honing in on my microscope skills and just lab skills in general," VanTassel said. "Just constantly being able to be use these things I know I will be able to apply to my career. It's very helpful. This will come in handy in grad school and in my career after I decide what I want to do."

VanTassel plans to study wildlife biology after graduation, specifically research or conservation. VanTassel has a skill set that will be hard to replace, according to Patrick, as she has trained to know the subtle differences of 60 to 70 species of spiders. And the only way to identify spiders, is through their genitalia.

"That's a skill that's not easily taught," she said. "It takes a lot of mastery."

VanTassel recalls several hours spent looking through the microscope at spiders she's never seen before, attempting to identify the organism. And just last week, VanTassel and Patrick spent at least 45 minutes looking at one spider, trying to identify it.

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Patrick, who is sometimes referred to as the "spider man" or "spider dude," first became interested in spiders while working on his Ph.D. at Kent State University in 2002. Trained as an ecology and botany, he enjoyed working with plants. But as Patrick began working on his dissertation, he needed to focus on an organism that was common, easy to catch, relatively easy to identify and strictly a predator. And so he chose spiders, and has studied the species ever since.

Many people react to Patrick's research topic with fear or disgust, he said, while others find it interesting. Either way, Patrick just wants people to know the role spiders play in the environment. He said people are "never more than a couple of meters from a spider at any given moment," and that's not a bad thing.

Related Topics: DAKOTA WESLEYAN UNIVERSITY
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