Spiders Can Be Beautiful – An interview with Mariella Herberstein

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 By Jennifer Vu

In my first semester at Macquarie University, I had this really awesome and interesting Austrian lecturer who would play a random animal noise at the beginning of the lecture and let us guess what it was. Each time, it would sound like something we knew, but it always ended up being an animal no one could guess. Because of this, Mariella Herberstein became one of the most engaging and memorable lecturers of the year. The other thing that I took away from the lectures was that she loved spiders and found them really fascinating.

Later that semester, in another subject, we were watching an episode of ‘Life in the Undergrowth’ by David Attenborough. It got to the end of the episode and the credits started rolling and someone spotted this lecturer’s name, ‘Mariella Herberstein’. Everyone who had done first year biology was stunned to know someone who had worked with and helped David Attenborough (he’s like an idol to most biology students). This is where my further interest in Mariella stemmed from.

Mariella is an Associate Professor and the head of the Biological Sciences department at Macquarie University. In her scientific research on the behavioural ecology of invertebrates, she looks at how spiders are significant models in behavioural and evolutionary research, the deceptiveness of spiders and orchids, and the mating behaviour and sexual selection of spiders and other insects. She is a well known academic who is constantly sought out by masters and PHD students who want to specialise in behavioural ecology of insects.

She told me how she became a science academic, what helping with a BBC documentary was like, the huge range of different scientific research papers she has helped with and that her love of nature doesn’t end with spiders.

 How did you get into spiders? What is it about them that you find so interesting?

I got into spiders in my third year at University, where we had to do a small research project. There was a choice between looking at orb-web spiders or slaters. The spiders won! Once I started working with spiders, I developed all these questions and the more information I discovered about spiders the more detailed my questions became. It is really an exciting but never ending story.

That does sound very interesting. It sounds like spiders weren’t what you originally wanted to study.  What kind of career did you originally want before you wanted to be a science academic?

I think I just did not have a firm idea about what organisms interested me. Early on in my degree I also had a very fuzzy idea of what I wanted to do with my degree. Working for national parks as a ranger was one of them. But once I started doing research, I realised that asking and answering questions was really what got me going. I then went on to do Honours (more questions) and a PhD (even more questions) and today I am still asking questions…hopefully not the same ones I started off with.

Were you always interested in animals?

Yes, I’d say I was always interested in animals, but I have more recently developed a much broader appreciation of plants and fungi.

What other species have you studied?

Together with my post-grads and post-docs we work on a range of organisms, including various insects (praying mantids, bugs) and plants (e.g. sexually deceptive orchids).

 

 

I saw the poster about David Attenborough’s visit to Macquarie University. What was it like meeting him? What parts in the ‘Life in the Undergrowth’ series did you help with?

The BBC contacted me when they were sourcing stories for the ‘Life in the underground’ series, and we had a few spider stories for them, that they were interested in. The crew arrived months before David Attenborough and camped in my lab to do all the detailed filming. David Attenborough arrived later for 2-3 very intensive days of filming. My students were helping out and literally beside themselves that they could work with him. He was extremely nice and very knowledgeable. He also came to the department to have drinks with staff and students, which was hugely popular.

We helped with the spider stories: crab spiders luring prey with UV, sexual cannibalism in orb-web spiders and prey capture in red back spider.

The Red back spider – David Attenborough: Life in the Undergrowth 

Out of all the studies you have done,  which one was your favourite?

Oh, that is a tough one…I suppose the one where we stuck tiny lead pieces on the back of spiders to simulate weight gain (using aluminium foil as a control) would be one fun one. More recently, I have looked at ageing in spiders, which was also fun. I suppose our trips to Malaysia to find the elusive orchid mantis was also pretty excellent.

Out of all the PHD/Masters students you’ve supervised, which ones had the most interesting and engaging questions/experiments?

That is tough as well. I had Anne Gaskett working on sexually deceptive orchids; Greg Holwell worked on how praying mantid penis morphology affected sperm transfer; James O’Hanlon is working on the elusive Malaysian orchid mantis, Kate Umbers worked on alpine grasshoppers that turn blue….the list keeps on going…

 How do you think your research will help  the scientific world in the future?

The research that I am involved with is really about understanding the national world around us. Australia is particularly lucky in having such a fascinating fauna and flora and we discover new biology every day. This is our natural advantage…in the UK, they all have to work on sparrows….

What would be your biggest tip to current biology students who hope to become academics and do studies of their own?

My biggest tip for students is to pursue their interests. Get involved in research (start as a volunteer until you can generate your own research questions) and keep on doing what you enjoy!