Seminars on Science
Vladimir Ovtsharenko

Dr. Vladimir Ovtsharenko is a research scientist in the Division of Invertebrate Zoology at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), and Curator of the Arachnological Collections at the Zoological Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Dr. Ovtsharenko's research is on spider taxonomy: the science of identifying and classifying species according to their evolutionary relationships. Since the AMNH houses the largest spider collection in the world, with over a million spider specimens, and the arachnological research carried out there is among the best in the world, it is an ideal place for Vlad to work.

Dr. Ovtsharenko collects spiders using a sweeping net at Van Cortland Park in New York City.
Dr. Ovtsharenko collects spiders using a sweeping net at Van Cortland Park in New York City. ©AMNH

Vlad grew up in the Caucasus in southern Russia. As a boy he was fascinated with all aspects of nature and collected beetles and butterflies for fun. In high school his interest in nature focused on spiders. The local university offered courses for advanced high school students. Vlad enrolled in these courses, which included excursions to collect insects and spiders for study back in the laboratory. The professor allowed the students to choose which group of arthropods they wanted to study. Vlad chose spiders but was discouraged by the professor, who thought that the lack of literature on spiders would make their identification too difficult for a high-school student. Rather than feeling discouraged, Vlad was motivated by the lack of information, persisted in studying spiders, and has studied them ever since.

While pursuing his M.S. in Biology at St. Petersburg State University, Vlad studied the spider fauna of the Caucasus Mountains. He earned a Ph.D. in entomology and arachnology from the Zoological Institute, part of the Academy of Sciences in the former U.S.S.R., studying ground spiders that live in the European part of the former U.S.S.R. Vlad spent about 15 years at the Zoological Institute. As a curator, Vlad founded the Arachnological Society of the Soviet Union.

Vlad has worked with spider collections in the major museums of the United States, Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia, and has collected spiders on all five continents. The author of some 40 scientific and popular articles, as well as an active teacher, Vlad has taught at the St. Petersburg Pedagogical University, the St. Petersburg State University, the Education Department of AMNH, and at Suffolk Community College on Long Island, New York.

Though Vlad has studied all groups of spiders, his main interest lies specifically in the taxonomy of ground spiders (Gnaphosidae), of which there are about 120 genera and 3,000 species worldwide. Vlad chose to specialize in ground spiders because the group was not well studied. The fact that practically nothing was known or written about ground spiders presented a challenge that Vlad could not resist.

As part of the inventory of Australian arachnids, Dr. Ovtsharenko collects spiders in Australia
As part of the inventory of Australian arachnids, Dr. Ovtsharenko collects spiders in Australia. ©AMNH

Vlad's current research project is on the study of the biodiversity of Australasian ground spiders. Vlad is working with two colleagues, Norman Platnick and Kefyn Catley, to inventory the ground spiders of Australia. These spiders live in soil, in leaf litter, or under the bark of trees, and prefer a desert or semi-desert habitat, but are found throughout Australia. Because of Australia's geographical isolation, its fauna, including its mammals and invertebrates, are very different from fauna elsewhere in the world. The majority of these spiders are endemic to Australia — they live nowhere else in the world. Some groups of Australian Gnaphosidae have completely different morphological structures than any other known, described ground spiders. The project is exciting, not only because Vlad and his colleagues find spiders that are completely different from any other known species, but also because hundreds of the species they have found have never been studied by scientists before. It is entirely possible that no other human being has even seen many of these species.

Vlad's work is critically dependent on the combination of laboratory work and fieldwork. In the laboratory, Vlad closely observes specimens under a microscope, illustrates them — dissects when necessary — and photographs them using a scanning electron microscope. However, there are things that cannot be discerned by merely looking at a specimen in the laboratory. To understand how spiders actually live in nature, it is critical to go out and observe them in their natural habitats.

One case in which this combination of laboratory study and fieldwork proved essential was with the Australian ground spider, genus Homoeothele. Homoeothele is very strange, with a shiny, elongated body. One species was first described at the beginning of the 20th century by French arachnologist E. Simon, who had never actually seen the spider in nature. He was given the specimen by a German scientist who had collected it in western Australia. While conducting fieldwork in Australia in 1998, Vlad encountered this very spider species living with ants in the ants' nest. Homoeothele lives with ants, looks like ants, runs like ants, and, turns out, likely eats ants.

Upon seeing the spider in its natural habitat, it was immediately obvious to Vlad that the strange shape of Homoeothele's body closely resembled the body of a western Austrlian ant. He surmised that the reason Homoeothele looked this way was to enable it to blend in with and easily live with the ants. It was only by observing the spider in the field that Vlad could see for himself the relationship between the spider's morphology and its habitat.

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