Paula Cushing, PhD

Dr. Paula Cushing is an evolutionary biologist who does research on arachnids (spiders and their relatives). Currently, she is investigating the diversity, taxonomy, and evolutionary relationships among species and families of camel spiders (order Solifugae) and among species of spiders (order Araneae). Arachnids are an understudied part of the Earth's biodiversity and a critical component of land based habitats worldwide.

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  • 1

    Ubick, D, P. Paquin, P.E. Cushing, & V. Roth (eds). 2005. Spiders of North America: an identification manual. American Arachnological Society.

  • 2

    Cushing, P.E. 2007. There's a Beetle in My Bread. Skipping Stones Magazine. Nov. - Dec.: 14-15.

  • 3

    Cushing, P.E.  1999. In Leaps and Bounds. Wild Outdoor World. Sept./Oct. 1999.

  • 4

    Cushing, P.E.  1998. Insect farmers. Highlights for Children.  March: 12-13.

  • 5

    Catenazzi, A., J.O. Brookhart, P.E. Cushing. 2009. The natural history of coastal Peruvian solifuges with a redescription of Chinchippus peruvianus and an additional new species (Arachnida, Solifugae, Ammotrechidae). Journal of Arachnology 37(2):151-159.

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Colorado Spider Survey

Habitat degradation. The phrase is common in discussions about Colorado wildlife, but it rarely brings to mind species of the order Araneae.

Spiders, or Araneae, are critically under documented in Colorado. Little is known about their biodiversity or the impact urbanization has on species distributions throughout the state. The Colorado Spider Survey, led by Dr. Paula Cushing of the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, is the first formal spider survey ever conducted in Colorado.

"Spiders are heavily impacted by habitat degradation, but we don't know exactly how because we don't have enough information," Dr. Cushing said.

Largely through community involvement, the Colorado Spider Survey gathers vital ecological information about spiders across the state. More than 30,000 spiders have already been collected, documented, and entered into an ever-growing online database (under construction).

"This project gives us a better understanding of Earth's biodiversity," Dr. Cushing said. "We know only a fraction of the organisms we share this Earth with, and spiders happen to be one of the understudied groups."

The Colorado Spider Survey has also helped the Museum establish one of the nation's largest arachnology collections overseen by an arachnologist. "When I got here in 1998, we did not have an arachnology collection," Dr. Cushing said, "We've experienced exponential growth, and a lot of that growth is thanks to CSS participants."

In the early days of the study, Dr. Cushing focused on training residents across the state to collect and identify spiders. More than 600 Coloradoans have attended CSS training workshops, and about 60 residents are actively involved in the project. Some of these "arachno-ambassadors" -- as Dr. Cushing calls them -- have even started their own projects.

"They're doing outreach that I would never have the time to do," Dr. Cushing said, "It's a really nice project in terms of raising scientific awareness and scientific literacy."

Get Involved

The Museum is collecting, preserving, and documenting the state's spiders to determine the impact population growth and development are having on these arthropods. Access the website.

Global Survey and Inventory of Solifugae

Commonly known as camel spiders, the arachnids of the order Solifugae are bizarre creatures. In fact, they are not actually spiders. The perhaps ill-named camel spiders display anatomical features not found on any other arachnid. And they can run for a really long time.

Funded by the National Science Foundation, Dr. Paula Cushing of the Denver Museum of Nature & Science studies these unique arachnids. Her team includes Dr. Lorenzo Prendini of the American Museum of Natural History, Dr. Bob Wharton of Texas AMU, Warren Savary of California Academy of Sciences, and Jack Brookhart of the Denver Museum of Nature & Science.

"Part of our goal is to find out how these different families are related to one another, which are most closely related to the others, and whether there is evidence that some of the families should be combined into one group or divided into additional groups," Dr. Cushing said.

Dr. Cushing's lab also assesses the evolutionary relationships among the genera (a lower category than family) of the family Eremobatidae. This family of camel spiders is found only in North, Central, and South America.

"We're just trying to fill in the gaps in our information," Dr. Cushing said.

One of these gaps includes the unique anatomy of camel spiders. Camel spiders have strange structures not found on any other arachnid -- such as tiny tree-like bumps on the undersides of male pedipalps (appendages near the mouth). Dr. Cushing wants to understand why they have these features and what they do.

Since Dr. Cushing began studying camel spiders in 1998, she has developed a dichotomous passion for the unique arachnids. "I have a real love-hate relationship with them," Dr. Cushing said, noting that she sometimes calls camel spiders "the spawn of Satan."

According to Dr. Cushing, camel spiders are hard to find, hard to preserve, and hard to understand.  "Everything about them is difficult," she said.

Still, Dr. Cushing continues her valuable research. Despite their diversity (more than 1,100 species), global distribution, and remarkable morphology, research on camel spiders has advanced little in the past 50 years. Fewer than 10 researchers worldwide are presently studying any aspect of their biology.

For more information about this research project, visit


Blue Fungus, Red Forests

In this Science Bite, Museum scientist Frank Krell explains how the combination of pine bark beetles, fungus, and people have turned many of the green forests in Colorado into a blanket of rust red.

Birding with John James Audubon (January 24)

Historic enactor Brian “Fox” Ellis will bring the famous ornithologist, naturalist, and artist John James Audubon to life on a guided tour of the Museum’s dioramas.  

Birding with John James Audubon (January 23)

Historic enactor Brian “Fox” Ellis will bring the famous ornithologist, naturalist, and artist John James Audubon to life on a guided tour of the Museum’s dioramas.  
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