Are whip spiders aficionados of metal?

University of Massachusetts Lowell
Somerville, Massachusetts
BiologyEcology
DOI: 10.18258/10792
$401
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  • $401
    pledged
  • 100%
    funded
  • 30
    days left

About This Project

Whip spiders (Class Arachnida, Order Amblypygi) are fairly large arachnids with lightweight yet strong exoskeletons that permit rapid movement and capture of prey. To date, there is no information on the elemental composition of their cuticles. My aims are to determine if amblypygids enrich their cuticles with earth metals (e.g., Ca), transition metals (e.g., Zn), and/or metalloids (e.g., Si), and if so, to determine if enrichment differs among size classes within and between species.

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What is the context of this research?

Amblypygids are a small group of arachnids with around 190 described species whose fossils may date as far back as the Middle Devonian (390 MYA; Garwood et al. 2017). Despite being a small and rare group, their strange appearance has given them some notoriety (see Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire). Unfortunately, this notoriety has not led to increased research, and so many questions remain to be answered. The question that interests me is, "Do amblypygids metalize their exoskeletons like other arachnids?" To answer this, I intend to use energy dispersive X-ray spectroscopy (EDS) to characterize the elemental composition of their cuticle and determine if there are differences in the types of metals that are present between species and between size classes within a species.

What is the significance of this project?

Elemental analyses of amblypygids can contribute to a better understanding of arachnid phylogeny. Whip spiders are closely related to the taxon Uropygida, which includes Thelyphonida (whip scorpions) and Schizomida (short-tail whip scorpions). Both of these groups contain species that metalize their cuticles like spiders and scorpions, and so an examination of amblypygids would help us determine if metalization is a universal feature of arachnids. Knowledge of their elemental composition may also help us understand why fossilization is so rare (do metals improve fossilization?). Lastly, by knowing which chemical elements are present in their cuticles and where, we can begin to appreciate how amblypygids can look so delicate and yet move so rapidly and take down prey so efficiently.

What are the goals of the project?

The main goal of this project is to collect elemental data from 3 species of Amblypygi using energy dispersive X-ray spectroscopy (EDS). Elemental data will be collected from the carapace, chelicerae, pedipalps, and walking leg tarsi (claws) from three species. I intend to examine three species: Charon grayi, Damon diadema, and Phrynus marginemaculatus (currently under examination). I also have different size classes of each species, and in some cases, molts. I will mount select regions of each species on graphite stubs used for scanning electron microscopy, coat them in gold (for imaging), and examine them on a field emission scanning electron microscope (JEOL JSM 7401F). EDAX Genesis software will be used to collect complete elemental profiles for comparison.

Budget

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The proposed research is part of my Master's thesis, which is focused on a comparative analysis of the amblypgid cuticle. The lab I work in does not have funding dedicated to arachnid research, and while my PI (Dr. Rick Hochberg) has provided funding for my EDS training and initial analyses of P. marginemaculatus, I do not have enough funding to complete more comparative research. My hope is that this proposal will provide the resources necessary to complete my observations of additional species and specimens, which can then form the basis of a detailed thesis, research presentations, and several scientific publications.

Endorsed by

This is an exciting project on an amazing group of animals. Dragoslav came from Serbia to work in my lab in order to perform novel research on arachnid morphology. He quickly decided to perform EDS on whip spiders because little is known about their exoskeleton, which is amazing considering how beautiful and unique these animals are. He received training in EDS via our Materials Characterization Lab and has already begun generating results. What he has found so far is entirely new and we are anxious to see what more he can find.

Flag iconProject Timeline

I have specimens of Charon grayi, Damon diadema and Phrynus marginemaculatus in Dr. Rick Hochberg's lab at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. I started examining Phrynus marginemaculatus in February 2018 and I should finish its analyses by the end of April. I expect to examine the other two species by the end of Summer 2018.

Feb 02, 2018

Start of the project - Begin EDS analyses of Phrynus marginemaculatus

Apr 04, 2018

Project Launched

Apr 15, 2018

Start EDS analyses of Damon diadema 

Apr 25, 2018

Finish EDS analyses of Phrynus marginemaculatus

May 01, 2018

Begin EDS analyses of Charon grayi

Meet the Team

Dragoslav Radosavljevic
Dragoslav Radosavljevic
MS student

Affiliates

University of Massachusetts Lowell
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Dragoslav Radosavljevic

I am on a Biology Master thesis program at University of Massachusetts Lowell. My thesis will be on elemental analysis of Amblypygid (whip spider) cuticle.

I could say that I am a zoologist by profession and heart. As a kid, I was one of those who would play in the garden or park, always looking for some unusual animal. Through such activities I got to know and love arachnids. They became my passion, as I got Bachelor's degree at the University of Belgrade, Serbia, and a profession, as I worked for four years at the Natural History Museum in Belgrade. But I wanted to do more, I wanted to conduct scientific research on arachnids.

And here I am, at UMASS Lowell, conducting research on whip spiders, very small and fascinating group. They showed up long before dinosaurs (in Middle Devonian period), and they are still present. Like most other arachnids, whip spiders are predatory animals. But what is intriguing about them, is that they are very good and fast climbers, even though they have very strong cuticle and largest bodies in the arachnid world.

My current research will be focused on three species: Charon cf. grayi, Damon cf. diadema and Phrynus marginemaculatus, with the possibility of adding one more. Elemental analysis of their cuticle could offer new insights into their ecology and evolutionary success as a group. It could also foment new discoveries in the field of biomaterials and biotechnology.

Lab Notes

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Additional Information

Many arthropod have metals in their cuticle, notably in the body components that are prone to abrasion, like legs, mouth parts or prey grabbing pincers in scorpions (Schofield, 2001). These metals constitute more that 1% of chemical elements in the cuticle and their main purpose is to strengthen it. We could call it a nature's way of hardening biomaterials, similar to our creation of steel from iron.


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