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A count of creepy crawlers?: Research project focuses on spiders

UMM student Preston Fifarek talks with professor Paul Myers about the spiders he caught for research project. Fifarek, Myers and other UMM students will be checking area garages and sheds for spiders this summer. Rae Yost/Stevens County Times1 / 2
UMM student Preston Fifarek looks at a spider through a microscope. Rae Yost/Stevens County Times2 / 2

Is there something with eight legs crawling around your garage? Has an insect crafted a web in the garden shed?

University of Minnesota Morris professor Paul Myers and several UMM students want to know about those insects. They'd like to visit the garage or shed to find spiders as part of a study on spiders in Stevens County.

"Don't squish them," Myers said. Instead, contact Myers so he can ask a student such as Preston Fifarek to investigate.

Spiders can be freaky and even scary. Fifarek chose to work with Myers in part because he wanted to get over his fear of spiders.

Fifarek lives in Valdez, Alaska, but it's not big animals that scare him. It's spiders. "I don't know. You always see documentaries about the super poisonous ones. I used to be scared of other insects because I wasn't sure what they could do."

Fifarek wants to calm his fears but he also wants the chance to do some practical research as a biology major.

He will spend part of his summer catching, collecting and studying spiders.

Spiders can teach us about the environment and climate in which we live, Myers said.

Myers said recent research suggests the number of insects in the world is declining. Spiders are part of the world of insects. Spiders feed on mosquitoes and other insects so the number of spiders in the county can be an indicator of the overall insect population, Myers said. Insects are part of the overall food chain.

"Just a count of spiders can be proxy to see how many insects there are," Myers said.

The spider research will be used to track spider numbers and the varieties of spiders. Once Myers has a database he can use that to compare spider populations and varieties from year to year and throughout a given year.

So far this spring, he hasn't seen as many spiders as in prior years. Or at least there doesn't seem to be as many spiders yet. But there also seems to be fewer mosquitoes so far, he said. He expects more mosquitos over the coming days which should mean more spiders.

Myers spent the past year of his sabbatical from the university collecting and studying spiders. He's also been breeding spiders in the lab.

On May 31, Myers gave several student volunteers vials to hold spiders. Students were to bring their spiders to Myers' home on June 1 where they would be examined under a microscope.

Fifarek was the first to arrive and he brought at least three spiders.

Myers used several spider identification books to help identify the spiders.

"With us being so big and they being so little, it's easy to overlook them," Fifarek said of spiders. But once he began looking for them, he found lots of spiders. He just couldn't always catch them because they are elusive and they can hide in tight spots.

"Once you start looking for them, they are everywhere," Myers said.

But just how many and what kind are out there? Hopefully, the research happening over the next several months can give Myers and the students a good idea.

If you are interested in having the UMM professor and students search your garage or outdoor shed for spiders, contact Paul Myers at 320-288-8170.

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