Great Falls College MSU opens lab to offer research opportunities
“Two year schools typically don’t have research projects, unless it’s embedded in a class,” Canine said.
By Erin Granger
Great Falls College MSU News Service
GREAT FALLS – When most people think about camel spiders, they picture huge bugs in the Middle Eastern desert. However, when a visitor to the student research lab at Great Falls College MSU peers inside the aquarium that holds a camel spider, they might be surprised to see that the bug is only about a half-inch long.
"He's not big," said GFC MSU student Justine Quirk. "He's just a little guy."
Quirk has learned a lot about camel spiders in the last month. She's been researching the critters after her boyfriend found a camel spider. Quirk, who plans to go on to earn her doctorate in zoology or wildlife biology, has always been interested in animals, so when she saw the spider and didn't know what it was, she wanted to learn more.
First, she had to identify the creature. Other students were calling it a camel spider and saying it must have been transported from Iraq on a soldier's clothes or luggage. After asking around and doing some research, Quirk discovered that it was, in fact, a camel spider, but it didn't come from Iraq.
"They're native to Montana," she said.
Also known as pale windscorpions or Eremobates docolora, camel spiders are considered a native species by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. However, they're relatively uncommon and are not the huge specimens people picture. Most of the photos of giant spiders people have seen online are an optical illusion.
"Soldiers have posted pictures where they held them close to the camera and it made them look like they're 6 feet tall," Quirk said.
In the Middle East, camel spiders might grow to have a body that is 6 inches long, making their leg span wide enough to cover dinner plate.
"In Montana, they never get that big," Quirk said.
Quirk approached Dr. Dan Casmier, chemistry faculty member at Great Falls College MSU, and he set her up in the Student Research Lab with an aquarium and heat lamp. Quirk spends up to several hours a day observing the camel spider and trying to gain a better understanding of the arachnid.
Great Falls College MSU opened its Student Research Lab last spring, after another student was in need of space to research algae. Several faculty members worked to establish an area that any student could use for research and independent study projects.
"Students really learn a lot from applied projects," explained biology faculty member Dr. Brenda Canine.
However, that's not an experience many undergraduate students have, especially at a two-year school.
"Two year schools typically don't have research projects, unless it's embedded in a class," Canine said.
The Student Research Lab has been used for studying everything from kombucha tea probiotics to building a 3D printed telescope. Chemistry professor Joe Barlow's students are using the lab to test natural compounds that can be found in plants and could potentially be used to fight bacteria and viruses.
Participating in research, forces students to truly understand what they are learning, not simply memorize things, Barlow said.
"Research makes them think big time," he said. "Education is so much more than rote memorization."
Quirk feels very lucky to be able to use the Student Research Lab.
"This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to me, especially as a sophomore in college," she said.
Little has been studied about camel spiders in captivity, and Quirk wants to add as much as she can to that small body of research. After asking around, Quirk found Dr. Paula Cushing, an evolutionary biologist at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, who studies arachnids. Quirk has been emailing with Cushing for advice and information on camel spiders.
Quirk named the arachnid Octavious and calls the spider "him," even though she's not entirely sure it's a male.
"Males have longer legs," Quirk said. "I think he's a male just because his legs are long."
However, without a female spider for comparison, it's hard to know for sure.
Camel spiders are unique in the arachnid world because they have 10 legs, instead of the typical eight. Camel spiders are sometimes confused as scorpions because of their 10 legs, but they're actually a class of arachnids called solifugae.
"He has the eight legs of a spider, plus two that are more like antenna," Quirk said.
She's observed Octavious use the two antenna-like legs to dig in the sand. Camel spiders burrow, rather than spin webs. She's also watched him use the extra legs to feel around him, possibly for vibrations in the sand when he's hunting.
"He extends them further than his body to feel what's going on," Quirk said.
That's lead her to develop a hypothesis that camel spiders are nearly blind or at least near-sighted.
Quirk feeds him crickets, which he grabs with the beak-like pinchers around his mouth. Camel spiders eat by liquefying their prey.
"He can only eat what his enzymes can liquefy," she said.
Quirk hopes Octavious will grow big enough that she'll be able to sample his enzymes to gain a better understanding of how he consumes his food. Her ultimate dream would be to find Octavious a mate and try to hatch eggs in captivity, which, to Quirk's knowledge, has never been done before.
Although Quirk has always been fascinated by animals, she never thought a spider would capture her attention the way Octavious has.
"I never thought I would love a spider so much," Quirk said. "He's just captivated my entire sophomore year so far."
Quirk plans to transfer to Montana State University in Bozeman next year and ultimately hopes to earn her PhD and then travel the world and study animals.
"I'm an adventurist at heart," she said. "This feels like an adventure to me. I feel like I'm somewhere else whenever I walk into this lab."
Quirk is fascinated by animals because humans share so many behaviors with other animals.
"We do what animals do, but we think we are so evolved and superior, but we're not," she said. "We still have a lot to learn from animals."
Quirk's research is an example of the level of research students can participate in at Great Falls College MSU and across the Montana University System.
To learn more about Great Falls College MSU and the research opportunities students have, contact Admissions at 406-268-3700 or visit gfcmsu.edu.
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