The Queen of Spiders Has Retired
She has been one of the leading scientists in the field of animal behavior for decades, and a role model for generations of young researchers. Her work with K-12 schools in Tennessee has touched thousands of students over the last 20 years, instilling a passion for biology and for the scientific process. And, as she says, in the 1970s, she helped stopped a war from occurring between two Central American countries.
Susan Riechert, University of Tennessee Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and UT Chancellors Professor, has retired. Because the pandemic and shut-downs threw everything into flux this spring and summer, her retirement did not get the publicity it deserved. Riechert’s impact on the field of animal behavior and on generations of UT students is immense, and her formal departure from the university will long be felt.
Like many animal biologists, Riechert’s professional career built off of an early love of animals. As she described in a Science Forum presentation at UT February 21, 2020, as a young student she worked with a range of species from spider monkeys to freshwater fish. While serving as a teaching assistant for a fish ecology course at the University of Wisconsin, she started collecting local spiders and soon realized she was quite good at identifying them (not an easy task). Her career as a spider biologist began.
At the time when Riechert was carrying out her foundational research projects, it was relatively rare for a woman to be conducting fieldwork in isolated areas. One of her first major independent field studies took place on the Carrizozo lava beds of New Mexico, where she spent seven months a year for two years camped out by herself in primitive conditions. She was trying to understand how spider populations could persist in the extremely harsh and dry habitats of the lava beds and grasslands where she was working.
Testing some key predictions of physics models of heat transfer, Riechert discovered that physical properties of the environment only partially accounted for the locations spiders chose for their web-sites. Individuals competed for the best sites and defended space around the webs they placed in these locations. This led her to develop and then test some of the early mathematical models of game theory with the spiders she was studying. These initial studies were to go on to influence dozens of young researchers who are now major figures in the fields of behavioral ecology and behavioral evolution.
Professor Alison Bell of the University of Illinois is one of those major figures.
“Professor Riechert’s early work was very influential in how I wanted to approach and how I thought about understanding behavioral evolution.,” Bell said.
Riechert’s career paralleled that of another major figure (and fellow spider biologist) in the field, Professor George Uetz of the University of Cincinnati. Uetz recalled reading Riechert’s earliest published study on what became one of her most-studied species and thinking it was a “stellar piece of work.” Around this point of time in the mid-1970s, territoriality in species was thought to be restricted to mammals and birds.
“Riechert’s work on the desert grass spider was totally anti-dogmatic – the idea that an invertebrate like a spider could be territorial and could have behavioral strategies that fit ecological circumstances,” Uetz said. “It was ground-breaking work,” he said, and it led her to generate new research projects with her spiders that “contributed to a lot of major paradigms in the field of animal behavior.”
Some researchers of animal behavior focus on a particular topic of study, and use a variety of species – sometimes very different species – to test hypotheses on that topic. Other researchers take a different route, and learn as much as they possibly can about a single species such that it becomes a “model” species that can be used to test a wide variety of questions in a range of different disciplines. Riechert took the latter route. As she noted about her model species in her Science Forum talk, “I just let it take me wherever it went, and I wasn’t wedded to one particular type of project.”
Since her foundational studies, her more recent work on grass spiders has included the physiological underpinnings of behavior, behavioral genetics, sexual selection theory, predator-prey dynamics, pest species control, and animal personality.
A University of Tennessee colleague, Professor Gordon Burghardt, noted that some of her biggest impacts on the field were her studies “on the ecological and genetic differences between spider populations and their influence on social aggression and competition.” From her earliest studies, Riechert had a sense for what would be the next big ideas in the field of animal behavior and then applying or testing them with her grass spiders – and it could be argued that Riechert’s work was instrumental in raising the importance of these new perspectives and methods in the field. It should also be noted that, in addition to her work on grass spiders, she was a pioneer in the study of social spiders. These animals, often in tropical countries, rather than being solitary and territorial, live in large groups in complex webs containing up to hundreds of spiders.
During her career, Riechert has published more 100 articles, chapters, and commentaries. Her work has been cited in other published studies more than 8,000 times. Importantly, her work has continuing influence, as more than 2,000 of those citations occurred in just the past five years.
Riechert has not devoted all of her academic time to grass spiders. A major initiative she undertook in the late 1990s, and that continues today, was her “Biology in a Box” program. This program brings innovative and exciting hands-on science into K-12 classrooms throughout the state of Tennessee. The different modules in the program, which come in actual wooden boxes, each foster critical thinking and a deeper understanding of science as a verb – a process of inquiry and testing of ideas.
Riechert built this program from the ground up. It has now reached roughly 75% of the counties and more than 300,000 students in the state, and has begun to engage students in other states as well due to the project’s web components. Professor Susan Kalisz, head of the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at UT, noted that Riechert is “really passionate about that . . . the amount of effort and the creativity that she brings to all the projects she is involved with is just fabulous.”
This passion for science extends to her own teaching. She and her family have long had a menagerie of different non-human animal companions, including a large and quite heavy tortoise. Kalisz remarked that Riechert had a special trailer built so that she could drive the tortoise into campus on occasion to get her students more direct experience with this interesting and, for eastern TN, uncommon animal. “She empowers people to love biology.”
About that averted war? Riechert described the story of a spider collecting trip through Central America in her Science Forum talk. Camping out one night in El Salvador, security forces picked her group up and brought everyone to the area colonel’s compound, purportedly for their own safety. As soldiers drank into the late hours, they divulged an attack they planned against Honduran forces at the nearby border. The next morning, as Riechert and colleagues crossed that border, they informed the US peacekeeping forces there of those overheard plans to attack. US personnel helped keep the peace there and Riechert “helped prevent a war.”
Riechert’s influence touched every part of an academic’s life. UT Professor Arthur Echternacht, who joined the same department as Riechert at roughly the same time, noted over email that she was the exemplary academic citizen in that “she more than carried her weight with respect to service to the department and elsewhere in the university, and in her interactions with the community at large, [and] I’ve tried to meet her standards.”
Uetz commented on the last time he saw Riechert, at a meeting of the Animal Behavior Society in Milwaukee. He was walking to lunch with his own graduate student and ran into Riechert. They all had lunch together and when Uetz’s graduate student realized how well he and Riechert knew one another, “my status grew in the eyes of my own student.” With regard to the study of spiders, “she is the Queen . . . Everyone looks up to her.”
-By Todd Freeberg