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School kids get up close with animal science at UTSC-hosted conference

Elementary school students check out the "Crazy Crawlers" station at the U of T Scarborough-hosted Animal Behavior Society Conference. (Photo by Ken Jones)

The first thing the children from Frankland Community School saw when they walked into the “Adventures in Animal Behaviour” fair at U of T Scarborough on Monday was a display of live black widow spiders. A few boys and girls backed away, but by the end they were all leaning over the spiders’ enclosure, asking questions and sketching the creatures in their notebooks.

A community outreach event of the Animal Behavior Society conference – running on campus all week – the fair featured eight stations showcasing research labs from across North America, South America and Australia. It was organized by Professor Maydianne Andrade, professor of biological sciences and a co-host of the conference along with Professor Andrew Mason, in partnership with two American members of the Animal Behavior Society. Faculty members and graduate students volunteered their time to educate and entertain 59 Grade 4 and 5 students as they explored the exhibits in the Environmental Science and Chemistry Building atrium.

The children could choose from a wide range of activities and demonstrations, from designing a plane that mimics bat movement and checking out a butterfly brain under a microscope to comparing hyenas’ howls and learning what cats’ tail positions communicate. The ASPCA Anti-Cruelty Behaviour Team was also on hand to answer questions.

At the “Crazy Crawlers” station, several graduate students from Andrade’s lab thrilled the young attendees with their black widow and redback spiders. The lab examines the effects of ecological and social factors on spiders’ reproductive tactics and sexual selection, among other complex topics, but the researchers found creative ways to engage the children at their level.

Doctoral student Catherine Scott brought along a large female redback spider and a much smaller male to teach the kids about courtship behaviour and pheromones. They observed the male’s “dance” on the female’s web, and could smell four different clear liquids and guess which one contained the scent that attracts the male. The clue was that it’s appealing to spiders, but unpleasant to humans. “Why would they think that smells good?” one boy asked after taking a sniff.

The children also watched a spider feed on a snack of mealworms and cheered on spiders of various sizes in “races” around a plastic container. Several tarantula exoskeletons – the old, outgrown skin they shed when they moult – from Andrade’s former pets were also on display. 

The most pressing questions from all the kids were about how, when and why the venomous spiders bite. Scott had some reassuring news. “They don’t bite defensively unless you’re actually crushing them against your body,” she said. “They’re very shy and hesitant to bite because they’re not well-defended. Their abdomen is super-soft, and if you poked it with a pin they would bleed out and die.”

Scott, who has previous experience presenting the lab’s research to children, says the fear of spiders is often learned, not innate. “As kids get older, they start to hear from others that spiders are icky and gross. But when they’re young, they think they’re amazing.”

The event was scheduled to be held at the Toronto Zoo, but its closure due to a strike prompted the organizers to move the fair to campus. The relocation didn’t dampen the children’s – or teachers’ –  enthusiasm, says Maggie Kalt, a Grade 4 teacher at Frankland Community School. “We jumped at the chance for the kids to see the university and interact with real scientists. It’s an amazing opportunity.”


© University of Toronto Scarborough