2020 Trinidad State News

Insect journal features the work of Trinidad State’s own “spider woman”

Valley Campus / May 18, 2020 / Written by Margaret Sanderson

Trinidad State photo For Kelly Kissane, it’s the little things. Specifically bugs. Many find spiders and small flying critters creepy. She finds them fascinating. “I was born to be an entomologist,” she says.

Kissane has been teaching biology at Trinidad State since last fall. And she has wasted no time in getting acquainted with the Valley, one bug at a time.

Entomology is the study of insects. Just recently Kissane spent hours at a local campground collecting specimens while observing spiders and other insects. “Most of what I found are wolf spiders,” she said. “Wolf spiders chase their prey and ambush it much like a wolf. They have chewing teeth, are very hairy, and don’t spin webs,” she added. They can be quite big, up to two inches. Kissane is a wolf spider expert.

Spider wasps, which are solitary wasps, burrow into the ground and feed mostly on wolf spiders. In April, a scientific article about spider wasps and their prey was published in Insecta Mundi, a publication peer-reviewed by experts.* The recently published article has had over 300 reads worldwide including Europe, South America, Israel, and Turkey. Kissane was one of the five co-authors. She was invited to join the project because she is the only Dolomedes (genus or group of species) expert in the United States and possibly in North America. Dolomedes are large hairy semi-aquatic spiders on which spider wasp larvae feed. Wolf spiders are in the Dolomedes group. Kissane said there are nine species in North America, seven of which need to be near water. Two Dolomedes species live in Colorado. They’re a little smaller than the species east of the Mississippi where the female is four times larger than the male and can be as big as a hand. “Species are a group of organisms that can interbreed and produce viable fertile offspring,” she explained. “When I was collecting Dolomedes triton for my research, I learned pretty quickly that I needed to keep a sponge with water in the vials where I was keeping the spiders, or they would die within 24 hours.”

“For as long as I can remember, I was into science. I still remember my first experiment in the sandbox at the age of four or five. Earthworms didn’t have legs and snakes didn’t have legs, so I was going to raise earthworms until they got bigger!” said Kissane. Much to her mother’s dismay, she has been turning over rocks and looking under logs ever since. “My mother had a very firm idea of what little girls were supposed to be. They were supposed to wear dresses and sit quietly playing with dolls. I was none of that! I was very tomboyish. I still am,” said Kissane.

When she was working in a genetics lab at the University of Arizona, there was an arachnology (spider) lab down the hall with some very enthusiastic students who had brought back some large spiders from Florida about the size of her hand. Fascinated with these spiders, Kissane knew this would be her life work.

After ten years of living and teaching in Texas, Kissane was missing the mountains. Her studies had taken her to Tucson, Arizona, Reno, Nevada and Western Oregon University with their respective mountain ranges – Santa Catalina Mountains, Sierra Nevada and the Cascades. “I used to hike to relieve stress and I didn’t have that in Texas. Now I’m back in the mountains hiking again.”

“Water is really important to me especially when I study semiaquatic spiders. The Rio Grande is nearby along with other bodies of water and the Valley has the drier climate that I prefer,” she said. Kissane grew up in a small town on a farm near Saginaw Bay on Lake Huron. Her family was poor. “I wanted to help first generation students and help guide them over the obstacles I faced,” she said. “First generation students don’t feel like they belong at college. They don’t know if they can make it. There’s a lot of insecurity there.”

Kissane has given many talks to young students. She said, “At a certain age, kids are fascinated with bugs and spiders. I just never outgrew it! I’m looking forward to being able to identify the different invertebrates (animals without a backbone) I brought back (from the campground).”

Kissane is a member of the Animal Behavior Society and the Society of Integrative and Comparative Biology. Her focus is the study of insect behavior. At Trinidad State she teaches General Biology 1 and 2, Microbiology, Pathophysiology and non-majors biology. Kissane can be reached at 719-589-7035.

The link to the spider wasp article is listed below. Although the article is full of scientific jargon, there is a fascinating account in the introduction about how the spider wasps paralyze their prey, then turn the spider over and drag its heavy body on its back to their underground nest where they lay their eggs on the soft spider belly and keep it alive for the larvae to feast on when they hatch. The larvae have scissor-like jaws and can easily cut into the living spider’s belly and feed on it. “Keeping the spiders alive keeps the meat fresh,” said Kissane.

* https://centerforsystematicentomology.org/insectamundi/0759_Kurczewski_etal_2020.pdf

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