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USA Science & Engineering Festival – Role Models in Science & Engineering Achievement

Leticia Avilés

Leticia Avilés – Evolutionary Biologist

One of the nation's foremost experts on spiders. By studying rare species of social spiders she is shedding light on the evolution of our own social behavior

Spiders are not famous for their caring, sharing nature. Unlike insects such as ants, it is virtually unheard of for arachnids to live in societies that employ tactics and team work.
So the recent discovery by evolutionary biologist Leticia Avilés of a species of spiders (known Theridion nigroannulatum) which she found nesting in the jungles of Ecuador and cooperating effectively as family-based communities, including hunting and sharing in groups, was quite a surprise to the biological world.

Leticia is a scientist at the University of British Columbia in Canada, and is herself a native of Ecuador where she was born in Quito. She became interested in science early on, and as a high school student was already fascinated with biology and curious about evolution. She attended the Pontificia Universidad Catolica del Ecuador where she started to study social spiders for her undergraduate thesis project.

Leticia soon became intrigued that these organisms, which have been little studied, can hold the key to important questions in evolutionary biology and population ecology.

Why She's Important: Leticia Avilés is one of the globe's foremost experts in arachnids (or spiders). By studying rare species of social spiders she is shedding light on the evolution of our own social behavior.

Most spiders have beastly social skills, she explains. They're aggressive, territorial loners that would just as soon eat a sibling as look at one. However, of the 39,000-odd spider species that have been described, a few species – like the Theridion nigroannulatum -- flout tradition. These social spiders live in groups. They cooperate while hunting and building their communal homes. They even care for their own—and sometimes each other's—young, whereas typical spiders lay their eggs and creep away.

While Leticia has seen just over 20 species cooperate, she has never encountered any species quite like Theridion nigroannulatum. These spiders live in nests that house up to several thousand individuals which hunt by hanging threads from low lying leaves. They then hide upside down, beneath the leaves waiting for prey.

When an insect flies into the strands a group of spiders drop down and throw sticky webbing over it. To finish off the ambush they inject venom with their tiny jaws. The spiders carry their kill back to the nest and share it with all of the others in the community. "It's truly remarkable," says Leticia. "Not only do the spiders cooperate during the kill, but if the prey is large they take turns carrying it back."

Although much study is still needed, the behavior of such spiders are beginning to shed light on how the cooperative nature of humans – one of the chief hallmarks of our success as a species – evolved.

Other Achievements: Her dedicated quest to study social spiders has led Leticia to trek and canoe in the Amazonian rain forest in search of these creatures, and to become known for developing computer simulation models to enhance her research, and to work in the laboratory employing cytological and molecular techniques.

Education: After completing her undergraduate work at Pontificia Universidad Catolica del Ecuador, she attended graduate school at Harvard University where she worked with noted biologists Herbert W. Levi and William H. Bossert, earning her Ph.D. In 1992. Leticia also spent time at the University of California at Berkeley (1988-90) and later at the University of Arizona where she was first a post-doctoral fellow.

In Her Own Words: As I continue to work with the spiders, every time I come up with an answer, I find more questions, every one as interesting as the first. So, I am never done. In fact, I now have so many questions that I have students help me answer them. That is what is so exciting about science. There is always something new to discover and something new to explain. It never gets boring."