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College of Liberal Arts

University of Mississippi

University of Mississippi’s Spiderwoman: Gail Stratton

Courtesy of The Daily Mississippian
by Miriam Taylor

I followed the petite woman up the stairs of Shoemaker Hall. We stopped on the 4th floor, and she lead me down a hall to a thick wooden door.

“This is the spider lab,” she said as I pulled the handle.

The room contained thousands of spiders.

Each one was bottled, labeled and stored in a thin plywood box, each sorted into rows of shelves. The room was small but neat, and she busied herself pulling out different jars of spiders, each with a handwritten tag labeling genus and species.

“This is one of the wolf spiders we’re studying,” Gail Stratton said.

Stratton is the coordinator of laboratory programs in the biology department, but her work goes beyond that. As an active member of the American Arachnological Society, her real passion is a creature most people fear.

“It’s funny, if you think about it,” Stratton said, commenting on people’s fear of spiders. “How many times do you think people have died in car wrecks in the past 10 years?”

I shuddered at the number.

“And how many times do you think people have died from spider bites in the past 10 years?” she asked.

I shrugged my shoulders and waited for her answer.

“Zero,” she said, holding up a fist to reiterate the number. “It’s truly an irrational fear.”

Stratton pulled herself up onto a stool, pulling down a box of what looked like dirt and straw.

“See these elongated tubes?” She motioned towards a particular set of dirt and straw. “These are casts we’ve made of the wolf spiders’ burrows.”

“No webs?” I asked as she rattled off information about how the wolf spider burrows, hunts, mates and sees and then repeated my question.

“No, no webs.” Stratton said.

She adjusted her glasses on her face and put the boxes back on the shelf, ambling off the stool. She continued to circle the room telling me the history of the spider lab (it got its first collection in the 1960s) and the history of her own studies with spiders (the oldest she ever studied had been bottled about a hundred years ago).

She placed the last bottle on the table, a curled up tarantula that would have been fascinating to see alive, and reflected on her past.

“I remember when I was younger, I was in a bookstore and was told I could get any book I wanted,” Stratton said. “I went and picked out one on insects. It was the one I wanted the most.”

Back in her office, a wonderful professorial type with wooden shelves bulging with books and a large photograph of three wasps caught in a spider’s web, she pulled out an extra chair and placed it in front of her computer.

“Would you like to see some films of the spiders?” she asked.

The question was unnecessary: Stratton’s passion is contagious.

I lost track of time as she played films that she and a colleague in New York had made of spiders spitting venom, performing mating rituals and creating sounds with their palps (those little arms by their fangs). She explained what was happening in each video, and I got lost in what she described as “the beauty of life.”

“I love to study life – living things. There’s nothing more fascinating,” Stratton said. “It’s a new lens to the world.

Studying spiders is a gateway to seeing your environment in a completely different way.”

“I wish I had more photographs to show you,” she said, gesturing to the three beautiful photographs that sit atop one bookshelf.

I glanced at the time and realized I had been listening to her tales and facts about spiders for well over an hour and a half. It is easy to see why her students always ask her to discuss her favorite topic.

“They know once I get started talking about spiders, there goes the class,” Stratton said.

She smiled, and I realized that is only half the truth.

Sure, any student loves to let the teacher talk to avoid doing real work, but with the energy and passion that Stratton speaks of spiders, it is hard to imagine any student that does not get caught up in the tales.

I glanced at the clock again and realized that it was time for me to leave but not without one last question.

Stratton laughed and shook her head, “No, I’ve never been bitten, and I hope to keep it that way!”