“Why spiders? I always get asked that question,” related Jonathan Pruitt, Assistant Professor, Department of Biological Sciences, University of Pittsburgh of his work with arachnids. “But frankly, more of them fit into a drawer than, let’s say, a Gorilla.” Pruitt talks a mile a minute and is obviously passionate about his work. He and his research collaborator Inon Scharf, Senior Lecturer, Department of Zoology, Tel Aviv University were both Bergmann Memorial Award winners in 2014.
Dr. Jonathan Pruitt
Scharf calls his research partner very talented. They met at a conference in Germany and soon learned that they both were interested in personalities in animals. “We both work with invertebrates that build traps,” said Scharf. “I study worm lions and ant lions. Both of these species dig pits in the sand and wait for their prey to step in. I chose these insects because they are easy to grow and compare, they have a unique hunting behavior, and it`s easy to collect and keep them in the lab. Insects in general are great animal models for research. You can collect them in really high numbers and it’s easy to obtain approvals to use them for research. People often forget that insects are the largest taxonomic group of animals but not as often studied as vertebrates and it is therefore important to understand them better”.
Dr. Inon Scharf
Their United States-Israel Binational Science Foundation (BSF) funded grant involves studying the insects and how stress relates to their development and personality. “With my research,” explained Pruitt, “personality traits are unique to each animal and to each type of breed. Consider how different your pet beagle is from your pet golden retriever. Stress in the wild influences if the animal lives or dies, if it can acquire resources and territory. Stressors over time define the animal’s personality. I’m interested in the evolutionary origins of stress. I study spiders because a lot is already known about them. It’s relatively easy to control an experiment to learn about something specific, like disease, weather, food and the like, and conduct that same experiment with little variations over and over again.”
Scharf is interested in learning if the unique personality types observed in the insect will last the lifetime of the insect through the metamorphosis stages of larva, pupa and the adult. He observes that insects do display unique personality traits but strives to understand if these traits correlate with their behavior through life. For instance if an insect is active and moving a lot, would it also be aggressive? Or, will an insect that displays a fear of predators when a larva have that some fear as an adult?
Examples of Antlion and Wormlion
Pruitt relates that stress is a major problem for us all. If we deal with stress well or poorly, their work has real world applications as the research will help us better understand how humans deal with stress.
Their Bergmann Memorial Awards added both additional financial resources and prestige. Said Pruitt, “It helps when the university considers promotions and tenure. With the award proceeds, I plan to attend top tier conferences to share our work in international venues.” Said Scharf, “This award for young researchers is very important. The prize money will help me expand my research in the personalities of insect groups – ant colonies – in addition to individual insects. Being recognized with the Bergmann Award helps my reputation and shows that I’m competitive in my field. This is even more important than the money. What I love about the BSF is it’s emphasis on getting scientists together.” Pruitt concurred, “I like the BSF’s emphasis on collaboration. Most funding agencies don’t stress that aspect. Collaboration creates a cross fertilization synergy.”
Looking forward to his visit to Israel later in the year, Pruitt said, “It is a tiny country yet contains four to five top tier world class universities. There is such a high concentration of researchers, it’s like a society of scientists. I’m excited to meet researchers during my trip, to learn about their cutting edge research and share the work Scharf and I are accomplishing.”
Pruitt typically spends about a third of his year in Africa studying spiders in Savanna trees in the Kalahari Desert region. This is a childhood dream come true, as he had wished to travel and work far away from his home.
Both Pruitt and Scharf continue with their hobbies even with the pull of their laboratories, teaching and home life. Scharf likes music and history and playing his flute. If you don’t find him working out in the gym to relax, you’ll find him baking. Pruitt’s outside activities are equally eclectic. He collects snow globes, plays the steel drums and copes with his own stress by running 6 to 9 miles a day. He even mentors young students in middle school through high school by training teachers to teach science. He travels to local schools and demonstrates how to conduct scientific experiments using his spiders. “I hope that I’m instilling in those young people the belief that they too can become a researcher, that they can go into the sciences and become a scientist,” said Pruitt.