Senior Daniel Thiery studied turtles in northern Michigan for his biology thesis this past summer. Daniel Thiery | Courtesy

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.