Searching for Wolf Spiders in the Land of Frozen Summers

Amanda Koltz is a National Geographic Explorer searching for wolf spiders in arctic tundra ecosystems. Follow her expedition as she enters the unforgiving Arctic during a frigid “summer” season to uncover what lies beneath the blanket of snow.


A rare (but still bumpy) stretch of paved road on the Dalton Highway with a view of the Brooks Range ahead.
A rare (but still bumpy) stretch of paved road on the Dalton Highway stretches ahead to the Brooks Range. Photo by Amanda Koltz.

It’s a bumpy ride from Fairbanks to the Toolik Field Station, 158 miles north of the Arctic Circle. While it’s only 370 miles from Fairbanks, the trip takes 8-12 hours depending on traffic, weather, and road conditions. Some complain about the long trip, but I love every bit of it. I love the excitement of the drive, how the further north you go, the colder it gets and the more inhospitable the terrain becomes, and most of all, I love having a full day of anticipation, mile by slow mile, before finally reaching our frigid outpost and summer home.

The first time I came to the Arctic, I had butterflies in my stomach for the last three hours of the trip. I was riding with a couple seasoned veterans, though, so I tried to play it cool. I think I did a pretty good job, although I probably had a big grin on my face the whole time. I had read so much about this famous arctic field station, it felt unbelievable to finally be going myself. This is my fourth year coming to the Arctic, but because of the unpredictability of finding funding for scientific research, I still feel an incredible sense of luck every time I make the trip. It is just so exciting to travel so far north – almost to the top of the world – ! Before my first trip, I imagined the tundra to be a simple, flat landscape that was low in biodiversity: an ideal place for my research interest of understanding whether and how biodiversity matters in ecosystems. I’ve since learned that the tundra is teeming with life and much more complicated than I’d envisioned, but that hasn’t taken away from its allure. If anything, I am increasingly fascinated with how so much can live in such a harsh environment.

Black spruce trees that were spared from a recent forest fire with their unlucky neighbors.
Spared from a recent forest fire, a group of black spruce trees stand straight next to their unlucky neighbors. Photo by Kiki Contreras.

I’ve been spending my summers in the Land of the Midnight Sun as part of my PhD research at Duke University. My work is focused on trying to understand the influence of tiny, abundant animals like spiders on larger-scale ecosystem processes. With the help of the rest of Team Spider (including my academic adviser from Duke University, Dr. Justin Wright, Kiki Contreras, Sarah Meierotto, and PolarTREC teacher Nell Kemp), the next two months will be spent in the field learning about the links between arctic wolf spiders, their soil-dwelling prey, and decomposition rates in the tundra ecosystem.

View of the Brooks Range from the Toolik Field Station, Alaska. Photo by Amanda Koltz.

For now, however, we’ll be enjoying the view of the tundra from our lab tent while we wait for the snow to melt. Despite worries of rapid warming in the Arctic, spring is late this year, and we’re still in a winter wonderland. We’ve seen a couple brave spiders out and about, but most of the arthropod life is still under a blanket of snow, awaiting summer’s arrival.

Toolik Field Station is situated off the Dalton Highway, just north of the Brooks Range of Alaska. Map courtesy of Toolik GIS.
Toolik Field Station is off the Dalton Highway, in the northern foothills of the Brooks Range of Alaska. Map courtesy of Toolik GIS.




Meet the Author
I'm a PhD candidate at Duke University, where I'm studying the importance of wolf spiders in arctic tundra ecosystems.