Many animals benefit by learning about the spatial location of food, refuges, or other resources. A small set of species has been studied in depth, and it is clear that there is tremendous variation across species both in the extent of their abilities and how they gather and use spatial information. This variation suggests that examining a wider variety of taxa would be valuable. The goal of this project is to establish jumping spiders, in particular Phidippus audax, as a tool for the study of spatial navigation and learning. These spiders hunt for prey during the day and return repeatedly to silken nests at night, a simple spatial task. They can be studied in the laboratory and field, and rely heavily on visual cues, which are easy to manipulate experimentally.
In this project, two aspects of spatial navigation will be examined. (1) In idiothetic orientation, an animal keeps track of its distance and direction as it travels, much as a ship at sea does; animals that use this method can move away from their nest in a circuitous path, but then return in a straight line. Field observations of jumping spider behavior by other researchers suggest that they may be using idiothetic orientation, but data are few. In this project, we will conduct observational field studies of spider behavior to determine whether their behavior is consistent with idiothetic orientation. We will also conduct controlled laboratory tests of whether spiders use idiothetic navigation to return to prey. (2) Animals also use landmarks, or environmental cues that signal the location of a goal. Tests in the field in which landmark placement is manipulated will be used to assess whether jumping spiders use them to find their nests or return to places where they have captured prey. In the laboratory, manipulative experiments will provide more information about exactly how spiders incorporate information from landmarks, including whether they favor close versus far landmarks, whether and how information about landmark size is used, and whether and how information about the relationship between two landmarks is used. Taken together, these observations and experiments will establish jumping spiders as a new model system for the study of spatial learning.