A true scientific hero. 


October 25, 2005
Scientist at Work | Norman Platnick
The Exciting Adventures of Spider Man 
Hundreds of glass vials with rubber stoppers sit in boxes on Norman I. 
Platnick's desk at the American Museum of Natural History, stacked like atoms 
in a crystal lattice. Inside the vials, magnified and refracted by the glass 
and the liquid it contains, are creatures ranging from itsy-bitsy to huge and 

Spiders - thousands of them, enough to send Miss Muffet into a coma - are 
pickling in alcohol, awaiting Dr. Platnick's perusal.

Most are specimens collected from his own fieldwork, but many have been sent 
from various institutions around the world. Amid the mass of vials stand a 
light microscope and a computer - the basic equipment he needs to conduct his 
research: finding new spiders. 

Not simply new species, but new genuses and families, grouped by their 
similarities and evolutionary histories. All spiders are united by their order, 
Araneae, classified by their ability to produce silk. And all Araneae fall into 
the larger class Arachnida, eight-legged creatures, which in turn belong to the 
phylum that contains all arthropods, or invertebrates with exoskeletons and 
segmented bodies. 

Within this web of Latin, the 53-year-old Dr. Platnick navigates without 
getting stuck, weaving new threads to connect the species he encounters with 
the species he knows. 

His logic is simple: find characteristics of spiders' shapes that independently 
select the same exact group of organisms. "There are about 1.75 million species 
on this planet," Dr. Platnick explained. "Select from these all the organisms 
with abdominal spinnerets to produce silk - about 38,000 species. Repeat this 
process and select all organisms with modified male pedipalps for copulation. 
You end up with the same 38,000." 

This congruence of characteristics unites spiders uniquely from all others, he 
said. Apply the concept with higher degrees of specificity, and species' 
characteristics emerge. 

"You start with the null hypothesis that they are all the same. It doesn't take 
long to see that they are not," he said. "Then you divide them into groups of 
specimens more closely related to each other." 

As he explained the process, Dr. Platnick dug out a paper describing a new 
species he had identified in Australia. "The differences here are in the male 
sex organs, or their pedipalps," he explained. Carefully drawn in profile, one 
pedipalp had subtly different arrangements of sub-millimeter-sized bulbous 

These minuscule differences have put Dr. Platnick and his museum at the center 
of research on spiders, termed arachnology. With the museum already housing 
tens of thousands of arachnids in by far the largest collection of spiders in 
the world, Dr. Platnick seeks to add to the number by cataloging the world's 
biodiversity of spiders, one at a time. In total, he has discovered more than 
1,200 new spider species, several dozen new genuses and a couple of new 

"His contributions to spiders are unmatched," said Quentin Wheeler, the keeper 
and head of entomology at the Natural History Museum in London. "He is the best 
arachnologist of his generation, has published more monographs and 
nomenclatural contributions than anyone, period." Dr. Platnick has written or 
collaborated on more than 250 scientific papers.

Moreover, his classification efforts have revolutionized the field of taxonomic 
study. Dr. Platnick is known as one of the greatest thinkers in the field of 
modern cladistics - a method of sorting organisms based on the evolutionary 
features they share, all derived from their closest common ancestor. 

His dedication to cladistics in the 1970's helped invalidate the commonly held 
views that evolutionary patterns could not be known and that classification 
could be based only on similarities between organisms.

For example, if one were to go solely by similarity, one might think the 
manatee's closest relative was another marine mammal. In fact, cladistics shows 
that features like its toenails and the way it gathers food with its snout make 
it more closely related to the elephant. 

Cladistics now determines how organisms are classified. "This was the most 
important event in the discipline since Darwin, and I would rank Norman as one 
of the three or four most important scientists who expanded, refined and 
explained these ideas to the world," said Dr. Wheeler, who worked with Dr. 
Platnick in the early 1990's on systematic biology, or the biology behind 

Born in 1951 in Bluefield, W.Va., Dr. Platnick started out in rural schools but 
at age 12, eager to take more classes in biology, enrolled in Concord College 
in Athens, W.Va. It was there, as a 14-year-old sophomore, that he met Nancy 
Stewart Price.

"Yeah, she was a normal college student," he said. "It took me two years to get 
her to take me seriously." As partners in a class on the biology of arthropods, 
they went to the Appalachian Mountains to collect millipedes. But all he 
collected was spiders. 

"I took one spider and tried to determine what it was," he said. "It took the 
better part of the day, but I finally figured it out." Dr. Platnick squinted 
his eyes as he dredged up the memory. "It was in the genus Cicurina. Common 
name?" He laughed. "Common names are not what we study." 

Still, the partnership proved rewarding. He and Ms. Price were married in 1970.

At 16, the young biologist headed to Michigan State to pursue a graduate degree 
in genetics, but switched to arachnids. After earning his master's degree, he 
went to Harvard to earn his Ph.D., then, in 1973, to the American Museum of 
Natural History, where he currently serves as a curator.

In his early years in New York, he read the work of Willi Hennig, the German 
scientist who developed cladistical theory in the 1950's. Dr. Platnick became 
hooked, and began categorizing the museum's collection following a cladistical 

While busy making his mark in the study of spiders, he also advocated that 
scientists use cladistics to classify all organisms. He debated fiercely with 
biologists and taxonomists in academic journals and at conferences. 

"Throughout the 70's and early 80's, Norman fought a scientific revolution, and 
won," said Jonathan Coddington, the head curator of arachnology at the 
Smithsonian Institution. But Dr. Platnick's primary interest is still the 
evolution of his eight-legged subjects. "I really want to assemble the spider 
part of the tree of life," he said. "To figure out how these families - there 
are 110 identified so far - are related to each other." 

He has traveled to places as far-flung as New Caledonia, Australia, Chile and 
Argentina to study museum collections, and to sift through dirt and sand to 
herd specimens into vials for later study. It is no easy task. 

"You dig, you search, you become very adept at herding a spider into your 
vial," he explained. "They are not long-distance runners, but can be blindingly 
fast at short distances, and to capture them, you have to figure out which 
direction they will run. It can get pretty comical when you've got to chase 

Some specimens are immediately drowned in alcohol. Others are scalded in 
boiling water to bloat their cells. This forces each individual hair on the 
spider to protrude, making the specimen ideal for imaging with the high 
magnification of a scanning electron microscope. 

In the lab, Dr. Platnick spends hours hunched over his light microscope, 
turning his specimens around with tweezers, cutting spiders open with a scalpel 
and taking extensive notes on the minute details of their spinnerets and 
pedipalps. He then sends the spiders and his notes to his assistant, Dr. 
Mohammed Shadab, who sketches them and then draws them to scale for 

Dr. Platnick is aware that to most people, spiders inspire annoyance at best, 
fear and revulsion at worst. 

To him, they inspire wonder. "I come to work in the morning and look at an 
animal no one has seen before, and it starts a cascade of new projects," he 
said, gesturing to his vials stuffed with spider carcasses. 

"I need to have multiple lifetimes to conduct all these projects. It's what 
gets me up in the morning."

  a.. Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company 

[Non-text portions of this message have been removed]

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