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Calls of the Wild

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Frontiers Profile: Damian Elias 3 pages: | 1 | 2 | 3 |

Image of Damian EliasIn "A New Way to Hear," Alan meets Damian Elias, whose original research uncovered the previously unknown mating songs male jumping spider use to woo females. Elias, who is working on his Ph. D. at Cornell University, didn't always want to be a scientist, but became interested in the process during a class other kids thought was boring. FRONTIERS asked Elias about his work with the Arizona jumping spider.
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When did you become interested in studying animals?

My family were cattle ranchers, so I was always around nature - even though I didn't appreciate it at the time. That's where I started to like animals and become interested in the outdoors. I wanted to direct movies.

I wanted to do that for a long time, and I went to college with that in mind. But, when I was in high school, I took a science class that I really liked. I think we were doing things that I guess most people in the class found boring, but I was really excited about it and enjoyed it.

It was an ecology class, environmental science. We made a transect - a square - and then you have a lot of plants and animal life inside it. Then we had to go in there and count all the types of plants and all the types of insects and all the things we found in there. My classmates couldn't believe we had to count 500 leaves and things like that. But I thought it was really cool.

When did science become something you considered as a career?

My classmates couldn't believe we had to count 500 leaves and things. But I thought it was really cool.

When I went to college and I realized that I didn't think I wanted to direct movies - or at least go into that industry- I remembered that class. I thought, "Well, I was good at those science things, so I'll try that." So, as an undergraduate, I studied ecology and evolutionary biology.

But the thing that really did it was, I got a job in the lab. It was there I found out that research was a viable option, that it was enjoyable, really fun and really fulfilling. I worked in a lot of labs on a lot of different critters. I worked on moths, grasshoppers, aphids and ants. So I worked on a lot of little tiny arthropods.

How did you end up studying spiders?

Photo of Arizona Jumping Spider

Aizona Jumping Spider

I started to really like jumping spiders in college in an evolutionary biology class. I had an instructor there, Wayne Madison, who works on jumping spiders. I saw them there for the first time and thought they were really cool.

My degree is going to be in neurobiology and behavior. With the spiders, I'm studying neuroethology, which is the neural basis of behavior.

One of the most spectacular things about jumping spiders is their mating dances. They're just really visually striking, especially if you look at them under a microscope. Just absolutely spectacular. It's really fun to think about how the male is coordinating all these little intricate movements with his legs. Meanwhile, the female is using all these things to assess his quality. It's just a neat thing and it's why I am interested in animal behavior. These are really complex issues in a neat little package.

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