Senior Aubrey Brown was selected for first prize winner this past summer after she presented her research to the Michigan Entomological Society on how climate change affects spiders’ ability to build webs.
Brown is one of nine Hillsdale College biology students who are presenting thesis research on campus this semester. Senior Monica Toohey recently presented on the accuracy of retail labels on fish for consumption, and senior Erin Flaherty presented on how seasonal changes affect macroinvertebrates in Fairbanks Creek in northwestern Michigan.
Brown conducted her research by testing webs of common house spiders at five different temperatures between 21 degrees Celsius and 50 degrees Celsius. Brown found that between 35 and 40 degrees Celsius, there was a drastic decline in the amount of webs the spiders can build. Additionally, the spiders in the 40 and 50 degree tests built the same amount of webs, but the spiders all died at 50 degrees, while spiders in 40-degree temperatures had a 58 percent survival rate.
Brown explained that while spiders were able to build sustainable webs in the 35-degree tests, they were not able to in the 40-degree tests. She also cited a NASA scientist who reported that the temperature of the earth has increased 1.1 degrees Celsius since the late-19th century.
“If five degrees makes enough difference so that the spider can not be sustained, we have to be careful about climate change, because of the 1.1 increase that has already occurred,” Brown said. “And the most increase has been in the last 35 years.”
Brown is the first Hillsdale student to conduct research on spiders, and she knows of only one similar general scientific study, which found that spiders built the most webs at room temperature.
Toohey’s project involved a combination of lab research and retail investigation. She got the idea for the project from a 2013 report from Oceana, an international organization focused on protecting ocean environments, which found that 18 percent of the fish from grocery stores and seafood markets the organization collected and tested were mislabeled. According to the Food and Drug Administration, mislabeling often is used to create financial benefits for the retail stores. Mislabeling can also cause someone to unknowingly buy an endangered species of fish and can also affect the health of human consumers.
“Basically the purpose of my research was to find whether you and I as general consumers should be concerned whether the seafood that we’re purchasing is actually what it is,” Toohey said.
To conduct her research, Toohey purchased several kinds of fish from various grocery stores in Michigan and tested the DNA to see if the fish type matched its label..
“I would go into a store and buy grouper and halibut and red snapper and salmon, yellow perch, a bunch of different fish,” she said. “I would record the name on the label, and I would kind of compare other things too, like if it was fresh, if it was wild, where it came from.”
She found one fish that was mislabeled in her last batch — a zander that was labeled as yellow perch.
She neglected to record prices during her research because she didn’t find out until later on that cheaper fish are sometimes substituted for more expensive ones. She also noted that it is difficult to tell where exactly food mislabeling occurs on the supply chain.
“A lot of journalism was based on the Oceana report,” Toohey said. “One thing Oceana was doing was advocating for increased traceability. There’s not a lot of traceability for that industry.”
Flaherty spent her summer and part of the fall semester studying macroinvertebrates, or spineless bugs, in Fairbanks Creek, which is a branch off Rockwell Lake in northern Michigan. Her project was to determine the long-term effects of seasons on macroinvertebrate composition over the course of a year, and also the differences between forest and meadow habitats along the stream. Flaherty said no scientific research has been performed on this topic before, to her knowledge.
Over the course of her research, she saw significant differences between the forest and meadow sites. She also found that in the meadow site, scrapers, which is a category of insect, peaked around May.
“I loved being able to do the hands-on work, and to be in the stream and around fresh air, and working with animals,” she said.