Category Archives: Spider science

Save the Horrid Spider!

Why protect this endangered money spider? Here’s my two cents

This is just adorable. And if it reminds you of Monty Python, me too. If it were me, I’d title this campaign “Life of Brian (the Spider)” or perhaps “Ministry of Silly Walks (with Eight Legs).”

Buglife, which calls itself “the only organisation in Europe devoted to the conservation of all invertebrates,” is crowdfunding on behalf of the horrid ground weaver spider, Nothophantes horridus, whose English habitat is threatened by development.

Nothophantes horridus, the horrid ground-weaver spider, is so poor that it can't even afford color. Actually, no. It's kind of brown.

The horrid ground-weaver is so poor it can’t even afford color! Actually, it’s kind of brown. [Illustration © Fergus McBurney]

Best spider name ever.

But even better! The little arachnid is of a type known as a money spider, a universally harmless breed with a friendly, colorful common name. Why do they call it a money spider? Because legend has it that seeing one, and protecting it, will bring you wealth and good fortune.

Because, you know, it will. Look at me: crawling with both spiders and gelt! “If you want to live and thrive, let a spider run alive” is a great old (also English) proverb that your crumpet-baking granny taught you when you were a sprat. The Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs, which should know, cites its use among Kentish grannies as far back as 1867, though everyone thinks it’s much older.

(In the UK, by the way, money spiders are converted to pounds sterling, thus making them “pound spiders.” No wonder they’re endangered.)

Buglife cheerfully points out that the spider isn’t horrid at all, unless you consider unshaven World Series players to be horrid:

The spider’s name comes from the fact that its body is rather bristly—the Latin origin for the word horrid [horridus] is bristly.

The conservation group worries that a planned housing development at an abandoned quarry in Plymouth will wipe out one of just three places where the tiny spider is known to live. Buglife conducted a petition campaign on the horrid spider’s behalf and is now crowdfunding for a proper scientific survey to find out its range and how to protect it with an emergency preservation plan. As of February 4, they’d raised £1,504 toward a goal of £9,600. The money spiders had better start shaking those trees.

Cool activism. Not just waving around picket signs or blocking traffic or chanting monotonous slogans, but putting time and money into concrete solutions. And on behalf of a small creature most people have never seen, and would probably squish if they did.

Who says spiders aren't made of money? In Canada they are, eh.

Who says spiders aren’t made of money? In Canada they are, eh.

I’m weary of crowdfunding appeals; they’re either worthy but far too numerous, or flaky and self-aggrandizing. But this appeal for the horrid ground weaver is no hipster smirk, unlike the guy panhandling online for his mac-and-cheese recipe. Everyone knows biodiversity is good and that it suffers every day from our roads, buildings, conflicts, and other ways we use our landscape to eat, find shelter, and make money. A few bucks to protect this money spider is spare change, well spent.

UPDATE: Another day has passed, and the horrid spider fund has reached £2,654! That’s, like, ten kilometers! Good show, crowdfunders, for putting your money where your webs are.

SECOND UPDATE: They made it! “Team Spider” reached its fundraising goal and is proceeding to arrange the habitat survey. And how could I have overlooked the YouTube animation? “Not everyone likes spiders, but no one likes extinction” is a slogan to remember.

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Posted by on February 4, 2015 in Netlore, Spider science


Kill a Spider, Write a Blog

Sorry Writers Say They’re Sorry — But Not Very

Today’s critique of the “I’m so wussy about spiders” bloggers:

It’s a mixed bag. A multimedia reporter in Visalia takes a weird excursion into his childhood, when he apparently thought black-widow spiders were made up by Disney. Then as a college student he finds a spider in his soda can, probably not a black widow but certainly dead. It was a Cactus Cooler—what do you expect? Was ever a pop more insecticidal? Then as an adult he finds a spider in his bath water and has a full-on Huck Finn moral crisis as he decides whether to kill it or turn into a nasty ol’ abolitionist and go to hell for saving it. He decides to kill it (blaming his wife’s potential reaction . . .  interesting) and then announces he is a man.

That might be a stretch.

I almost kind of wanted to like this column, in which a spider-hating woman writes a businesslike memo to the spider she’s about to slaughter. The interesting part to me is how it reiterates this recurring idea of a “contract.” Lots of anxious bloggers proclaim their tolerance of spiders who know their place: in the yard, OK; in the sink, no; in the upper corner of the window, no objection; ambling along the baby blanket, no way.

Contracts are a specific thing, though. It takes two parties to make one. You gotta wonder about these fantasy-prone writers who think they’re drawing up legal documents with an arachnid. More likely they’re making deals with themselves, or with God.

Seriously. Even maximum arachnophobes seem to feel guilty about killing a small living thing without provocation.

Apparently this sight  casts terror into the hearts of creatures that outweigh the spider a few thousand times over AND have control of the faucet.

Apparently this sight casts terror into the hearts of creatures that outweigh the spider a few thousand times over AND have control of the faucet.

So instead they build this mental scaffolding that absolves them of the killing if they have a good reason, such as a violated contract.

When I’m reborn as a college student I’m going to create an interdisciplinary major in tort law and arachnology. Instead of pro bono I’ll work pro hobo.

Wait till the bloggers get hold of this! A new study reports that a certain kind of orb weaver, Nephila plumipes, gets plumper and presumably more fertile in urban Sydney than it does in the countryside. There’s more to eat (especially around streetlights and other illumination), fewer parasites, and more warmth. But to a blogger all that says is BIG SPIDERS GET BIGGER, REFUSE TO SIGN CONTRACT TO STAY OUT OF MY SINK. Watch for it.







The Burning Question about Spiders

Never Bitten, Quite Shy—Why Are People Arachnophobic?

A few more people have torched their houses in pursuit of a spider. First this guy in Seattle used a can of spray paint and a lighter. Then another man, this time in Wales, tried the same thing. A woman in Kansas, not to be outdone, scattered burning towels—burning towels—all round the place in her attempts at arachnicide. (She, at least, was arrested on suspicion of arson because the other half of her duplex was occupied. Not by spiders—by people.)

I don’t know what causes people to be terrified of spiders, and I don’t think anybody else does either. Not yet. Look into arachnophobia research (there’s a lot) and it runs the gamut from plausible to puzzling.

What’s also puzzling is how rarely people acknowledge that arachnophobia is not just irrational but also seriously dangerous. Not just for firebugs (see above). For people who let go of the steering wheel when a spider strolls across the dashboard (and who then endanger other drivers’ lives too). For people whose flailing, crippling anxiety makes them climb out of windows. Or swing baseball bats in the house, slam their fists into drywall, shriek and panic in public places.

Some forms of therapy are said to work. And there’s a carnival of potential explanations for the fear’s origin. You should know that . . .

1. Entomologists (scientists who study insects) are sometimes arachnophobic themselves. Shouldn’t they know better? Answer: sometimes they do, and sometimes they’re just maggot-lovers.

Great book! I intend to review it soon. Suffice it to say you'll never look at a lubber grasshopper the same way again. Or maybe a spider. This book is a great short introduction to insect- and spider-fear. Bonus: none of the photos will make you scream or even say ick.

Great book! I intend to review it soon. Suffice it to say you’ll never look at a lubber grasshopper the same way again. Or maybe a spider. This book is a great short introduction to insect- and spider-fear. Bonus: none of the photos will make you scream or even say ick.

2. Some researchers say arachnophobia happens because people find spiders disgusting. Disgust is triggered by the dread of contamination: dirt, disease, putrescence, feces, etc. But that’s no answer at all. Why would phobics think spiders are disgusting? They don’t cause disease, are no dirtier than most other animals, and have nothing to do with rot and excrement.

3. Other researchers think it’s because the potential for spider fear is evolutionarily handy. As in, if you’re primed to acquire arachnophobia, it will protect you against spider-like threats to your existence. Again, though . . . why? What threats are those? Spiders are overwhelmingly benign in human existence, and what evidence is there that things were ever otherwise? If you’re primed to be terrified of heights, that’s smart! Falling from a great height kills you. But arachnophobia is by and large a burden, not a tool. Given the hysterical reactions people have to spiders, arachnophobia makes you worse off in daily life, not better.

4. There’s that thing called “otherness.” Too many eyes, too many legs, too hairy, they skitter. Yeah, maybe.

5. People don’t like sudden movements. Spiders move unpredictably and pop up where you don’t expect them. Many prowl around and are suddenly just there. Some move super fast as they dive for cover inside your home. So they startle you and they’re weird and you don’t know where they went.

6. Spiders bite. But bees, wasps, hornets, ants, and flies also bite or sting, and all of them are much, much more likely to bump into people. Besides, most spiders don’t bite. If you were asleep and didn’t see what caused your itchy bump, you can’t blame a spider.

7. This part is actually true: women are far more prone to fear of spiders than men are. It’s still no excuse for a thousand blogs squealing about how the author had to round up a manly man to squish a spider in the tub—that’s just lazy. Why doesn’t anybody question the sexist undercurrent: that ours is a world of dainty, timid gals and spider-dismembering strongmen? C’mon, cavewomen. I bet your genes could tell a much more interesting tale.

The roots of arachnophobia could be buried a long time yet, but meantime let’s point out a couple of things. One, you can get over a fear of spiders. Lots of people have. I was never actually afraid of spiders, but I used to carry around the usual vague dread about them, mostly fear of being bitten. Gardeners know what happens next; they have this kind of revelation all the time: once they fit themselves more calmly into the web of life, they start to salute its other inhabitants and stop fearing them. Maybe people should just spend more time outdoors, turning stuff over.

Also: people with debilitating arachnophobia should get help. We feel tickled and smug to read about some doofus burning down his laundry room to kill a spider (stories like that are also cheap clickbait for sham news sites or plagiarizing bloggers). Or freaking out on camera when spotting a spider, or (oh my, this happens a lot) crashing the car when a spider appears. But I don’t want those people on the roads, or working around machinery or open flames or my kids, and I bet you don’t either. I also don’t want them to suffer.

I read an interesting theory about love for animals, a love that arrived rather recently among our species. People acknowledge that animals feel pain, have their own interests, and possess at least a qualified right to live. This didn’t used to be. It’s among the things that make modern people modern. It’s also, according to one school of thought, something humans actually need in order to be humane toward each other.

I have no idea if biophilia holds water or if it’s just an excuse for philosophers to mud-wrestle. But I do know that once you give spiritual space to your first unlovely living creature, be it a mutt or a yard possum or a baby, compassion only grows.

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Posted by on August 11, 2014 in Myths and Calumnies, Spider science


This Spider’s Got It Made (But There’s No Shade)

Make me one . . . with everything

The Maker Faire is coming back to the Bay Area, presumably bigger and better than ever, and stickier (from all those glue guns). I love the idea but I’ve never been. You know why? There are too many crafty people around here, and they snag all the parking and crowd the tofu-dog stands and get in the way so I can’t see the robots doing yoga! Or the self-washing dogs, or the bamboo cars. Um, I’m not exactly sure what they have on tap this year.

Spiders are makers, too, to be faire (heh). Not just takers, although they do have to take life to exist. A blog posting today from the esteemed biologist Jerry Coyne points out a spider that makes what looks like art but has some deep, and still undiscovered, purpose.

You already know about the spider that makes piñatas.

Coyne singled out a Namibian spider that lives in the ground and arranges rocks around the entrance of its burrow. It’s been noted that it usually chooses seven rocks, but as Coyne explains, that could just be due to the size of the spider and of the typical local rock. The pattern the rocks make is a purty flower (below).

Daisy, daisy, give me your answer, do. The flower bower of a Namibian spider in the family Segestriidae. (Photo by G. Costa et al., Journal of Arid Environments, 1995)

Cute, of course. But why? As usual with spiders, they’ve had 400 million years’ practice at keeping secrets. They’re masters at “no comment.”

Coyne’s possibilities include: the rocks help keep wind-blown sand out of the burrow, they disguise the spider’s hideout from predators, they somehow attract prey, or they serve as landmarks for the very nearsighted spider. No experiments have been performed to make these anything other than guesses, he notes.

The most tantalizing part of the whole setup—it’s a little eerie—is how the spider arranges its daisy. The narrow part of the rock points in, the broad part outward; that’s what makes the flower shape so lovely, so natural-looking. There has to be a well-engineered reason for that. But now we’re talking about how a mason would think. This spider, mysteriously, has enough brainpower to comprehend how the rocks fit. And they’re not even touching.

Radial symmetry is the heart of what web-spinning spiders do; we’ve all seen those marvelous mandalas in the garden. The orb weaver’s talent for engineering is well studied. But the Namibian spider is a reminder that every small animal has its bag of tricks, tools honed for its environment and often entirely unseen by us.

The yellow sac spiders that bivouac in the cracks spin a silk sleeping bag that would be the envy of any mountain climber. The black widows in the fence (yes, they came back from wherever they went during construction) maintain a tangled, most haphazard capture web, but look close and you see that it couldn’t be more perfect for catching prey, slowing down intruders, and giving the clumsy widow a fighting chance at escape.

If I can make it here, I'll make it anywhere! (Maratus volans photo by Dr. Jurgen Otto)

If I can make it here, I’ll make it anywhere! (Maratus volans photo by Dr. Jurgen Otto)

And the jumping spiders—they’re a little more obvious, I guess. Anybody could figure out the survival value of a rainbow afro or really good dance moves. Preferably combined! If the jumping spiders ever discover Namibian flower power, they’ll be unstoppable.








Movember is for Mo-rachnids

Manly men and spiders with ‘staches

In contrast to the spider-fearing citizens of Britain, spiders themselves do keep a stiff upper lip. It’s called a clypeus (CLIP-ee-us) and is defined as the area between the front edge of the carapace and the anterior eyes—a mustache zone, you might say.

On many spiders there isn’t much going on in the clypeus, but among salticids, or jumping spiders, there’s often a patch of lush facial fur. Salticids overflow with charms, even for the spider-averse, among other things because they have faces that actually look like faces, with a few extra eyes at the corners. The cowboy handlebars and day-glo beards (even Afros!) are just another endearing bonus. Seeing as how this is Movember, a month whimsically dedicated to growing a mustache to draw attention to men’s health issues, I thought of this particular bewhiskered spider. Like males of all species, he’s no stranger to challenges of the guy variety.

Let it grow! The rakishly mustachioed Lapsias lorax, collected by Wayne Maddison and crew in Ecuador in 2000. (Photo © Univ. of British Columbia)

Let it grow! The rakishly mustachioed Lapsias lorax, collected by Wayne Maddison and crew in Ecuador in 2000. (Photo © Univ. of British Columbia)

Lapsias lorax won its name in a contest hosted two years ago by the Beaty Biodiversity Museum in Vancouver, B.C. The Beatty is just jumping with spiders, and is the home base of an arachnological legend, Wayne Maddison. If you’ve spent any time at all on the Internet, and everybody knows you have, you’ve seen Maddison’s videos of jumping spider courtship dances. The vids that all you wacky kids overlay with music soundtracks—everything from disco to house to smoove tunes. A veritable “Stayin’ Alive” with the dance floor measured in millimeters. Top that, digital kittens.

The way those determined little dudes shimmy and wave and waggle! It’s hilarious and touching and gives the average male human some food for thought about the many ways he may have appeared, and perhaps daily appears, a fool for love. Boz Scaggs may, or may not, have dedicated his album Silk Degrees to these silk-spinning horndogs.

Maddison oversaw the contest to name this new species of jumping spider, which he and his colleagues had discovered in Ecuador. Maddison picks up new species the way most of us pick up the mail, because he makes a habit of traveling to places where the wild things are. According to the Beaty site, he received 810 entries. No, I didn’t win.

The winning idea came from a Canadian who thought the golden band below the mystery spider’s face—more of a slinky, pencil-thin mustache than the usual salticid bottlebrush, also more properly on his jaws than his clypeus—resembled that of the Lorax, Dr. Seuss’s treehugging hero in the book of the same name. (Sharp observation, Tristan Long! Next time I shall defeat you.) It also pleased the spider judges that the spider’s name evokes a desire to protect threatened environments, many of them the wild places Maddison likes to explore.

Dr. Seuss's Lorax. The spider's better groomed, in my opinion.

Dr. Seuss’s Lorax. The spider’s better groomed, in my opinion.

So there you have it—one of the many mustachioed spiders to strike a hairy note for Movember. Incidentally, the mustache doesn’t make the man, not among spiders. The real way to tell this spider is male is the shape of his pedipalps, those extremities below his face. The palps are built like a smaller set of legs, with one fewer segment. Among mature males the tips look like boxing gloves, dramatically different from the trim, sleek palps females have.

They’re shaped that way for mating. They are the key that fits the lock. A receptacle at the end holds sperm that the spider has previously placed on a special web and then taken up as if by syringe. Then he goes looking for the right female (that’s what that dancing is really for! not fame and glory and a trophy, but to signal in song and dance, “Love me! Don’t eat me!”). What happens next is kind of like a handshake, at least on his end, and kind of not. And it’s not on the courtship videos. Leave some room for romance, bro.


<3 Bugs, h8 Spiders

Warning: big old spider picture BOO!

Rick Vetter, the quotable spider guy who keeps tabs on the brown widows (spreading) and brown recluses (nonexistent) of Southern California, has a fun article in American Entomologist. The topic sounds as if it was born from a lifetime of forehead-slapping: why are there spider-hating entomologists? An entomologist studies insects, and I know spiders aren’t insects. Still, you’d think professional courtesy at the very least would cause entomologists not to indulge in any of the hyperventilating, car-wrecking, weapons-fetching behavior you see on the Internet when some schmo encounters a spider.

Like the lady in this picture at right. Ooo, sour face.

Shelly Albrow's 15 minutes of fame: she saw a harmless spider. It was ON THE FLOOR.

Shelly Albrow’s 15 minutes of fame: she saw a harmless spider. It was ON THE FLOOR. #ohthehumanity

The British press rose to the occasion in gaudiest fashion by relaying her encounter with the Beast of Orpington (I made that up), “a deadly spider.” You know the drill. Somebody freaks out about Steatoda nobilis, an insignificant spider that’s somehow been dubbed Britain’s Most Venomous. But cor and blimey, just look at this photo and consult with Dr. Internet: if this is a Steatoda nobilis, I’m Tobey Maguire. And I’m not.

The Beast of Orpington.

The Beast of Orpington.

This (left) is a picture Ms. Albrow took of the monster, a harmless grass spider most likely, but let’s frighten a few more Brits and call it maybe a wolf spider! (owOOOoooooooo)

Anyway, Vetter found a number of entomologist colleagues who admit to fear and loathing of spiders. One hates spiders but works with maggots for a living and thinks they’re adorable:

This respondent is fully aware of the paradox of this spider-hating, maggot-friendly situation, but concluded an e-mail with “maggots don’t sneak up on you and jump in your hair.”

Often there was a Childhood Incident (tell me about having a family of brothers, I know). Vetter writes, “One entomologist mentioned that while her dislike of spiders is minor, her brother is highly arachnophobic, which ‘comes in handy sometimes.’ “ Several mentioned running into those big orb webs that go up overnight, in which the poor, hardworking arachnid has settled in with a few meager breakfast bugs and somebody face-blunders right into her work. One scientist had a bad dream about being snared by a human-sized spider.

One guy had a Cheiracanthium run all over his face and into his nostrils while he was driving. OK, he gets a pass.

Vetter admits the numbers aren’t representative. Nor is the Fear of Spiders Questionnaire (an actual psychological tool) well-tailored to his research:

When I (or other arachnologists with no spider fear) take the questionnaire, our score is 14 as opposed to the expected score of zero because we give the highest “totally agree” response to two statements (“Currently, I am sometimes on the lookout for spiders,” “I now think a lot about spiders”), but for completely opposite reasons than those of an arachnophobe. Personally, I probably think about spiders every waking hour of the day.

Me, too!

All academic articles should be written this way. First, a pretty chart showing just what the respondents have against spiders. Oingo Boingo (“Insects,” from “Nothing to Fear,” 1982) was right: it’s because they have too many legs! Also they scuttle. And surprise you.

Ugly, but not filthy. Silent, but not deadly. Feared most for "the way they move." I'm never going to dance again.

Ugly, but not filthy. Silent, but not deadly. Feared most for “the way they move.” I’m never going to dance again.

Then there’s an amazing chart showing how the respondents rank a whole zoo of animals on a like-dislike scale. Spiders and ticks bring up the rear:

No, I don't know what an earwing is either. Cuter than an eel, at any rate.

No, I don’t know what an earwing is either. Cuter than an eel, at any rate.

It’s a fun read. Bonus points for finding the words “jeebies” and “willies.”

I want to learn more about arachnophobia. There’s been a lot of research, but it’s still mysterious. Why are lots of people in certain countries afraid of spiders, but not as many in other places? Why would evolution select for arachnophobia, if it did, when spiders barely matter as threats to life and health? Why aren’t people terrified of mosquitoes and flies, which really are little mass-murdering bastids? And again—I think spiders are quite attractive, but even if you didn’t, why would you like maggots better?


As Easy as Herding Tarantulas

Let’s go on a spider safari

This one goes out to all you screamers who won’t pick up a spider in a paper cup and put it outside. In case it, you know, leaps for your throat or lays eggs in your hairdo or something else that happens all the time.

In South Africa, a road-widening project ground to a halt last year when workers found a bunch of baboon spider burrows in the way. The two species encountered, Augacephalus junodi and Ceratogyrus darlingi, are protected, so the spiders had to be relocated.

Helloooo, Blondie. Augacephalus junodi, the golden baboon spider, had to pick up stakes when the road came through.

Helloooo, Blondie. Augacephalus junodi, the golden baboon spider, had to pick up stakes when the road came through.

Augacephalus is one of the most beautiful species names ever. Auga refers to the rays of the sun and cephalus means head; the pattern on this spider’s cephalothorax looks like a big, golden sunburst. Ceratogyrus has a little horn.

Baboon spiders are tarantulas. Hairy, hefty. They even sound big, though by tarantula standards they’re not especially. Tarantula hobbyists like to show them off, which means the populations are at risk from the illegal pet trade.

So did the road workers all faint in unison at the prospect of herding tarantulas?

Of course not: South Africans, folks! they’re tough. They wrestle lions before breakfast. Instead the workers, advised by a team of scientists, rounded up the big spiders by rooting them out of their burrows and collecting them by hand. Out of 400 spiders relocated (cue “Kingdom of the Spiders” footage, hello Bill Shatner), only two of them bit anybody, and the game-reserve adviser on the project shrugged it off with, “It is like a bee sting.”

A scientist (you can tell, only scientists wear wristwatches anymore) shows one of the relocated baboon spiders  around her new digs. New burrow holes were dug with an auger, with grass and such added for curb appeal.

A scientist (you can tell, only scientists wear wristwatches anymore) shows one of the relocated baboon spiders around her new digs. New burrow holes were dug with an auger, with grass and such added for curb appeal.

I love this place! Then the team dug hundreds of artificial burrows for this shy, retiring animal, which lives most of its life in the same hole in the ground. The refugee spiders accepted the carefully located new burrows, which featured moistened soil and a scattering of plant material outside for shelter. The project turned out so well that other construction projects in South Africa started sending their spiders to the new habitat, too. Adjust your safari plans accordingly.

A side note: I’m sure you’ve noticed how eager energy companies are to trumpet their environmental credentials. These spider wranglers worked for a South African mining concern called Exxaro, which was widening a road to a power plant. I know nothing of their record and of course this story makes them look good—especially the part where some of the spiders set up housekeeping in a pile of ash next to another coal-fired power plant. Still, if oil companies can pass themselves off as cormorant-hugging do-gooders, I suppose this mining concern can use tarantulas as spokes-spiders for sustainability. After all, they coulda just squished them.

Ah, that new-home smell. Hope the neighbors are friendly.

Ah, that new-home smell. Hope the neighbors are friendly.

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Posted by on August 20, 2013 in Spider science, Tarantulas


Justice for the Brown Recluse?

Don’t Fear the Creeper

Great news—a scientist and a doctor are teaming up to develop a test to detect brown-recluse venom.

Why is this a big deal? If you’re a fan of facts, you’ll know. The brown recluse spider (Loxosceles reclusa) has a mythical persona far bigger and more menacing than the arachnid itself. It’s the go-to spider when people suffer a skin insult and need to blame a bug. It doesn’t matter if the recluse didn’t do the deed—or even if the recluse doesn’t live in the same state as the invisible biter—this particular spider gets the rap.

At least until you admit your guitar player died of something a little sadder, like liver failure.

Lately the fact-finders of the spider world are getting a little traction, at last, for the idea that “spider bite” is a weak diagnosis for mystery lesions. People are gradually letting it sink in that staph, lice, ticks, ants, mosquitoes, even diabetes can cause medically significant skin problems, too.

Still, the Invisible Spider stalks the internet in every bloggy tale of a gardener with a red bump that oozed and ached and required serious frowns from every doctor in the county. I’ll leave it to the folklorists and anthropologists and psychologists to explain why we have this instinct to blame spiders for every affront. Perhaps, in the immortal words of Oingo Boingo, “they’ve got too many legs.”

Once bitten, not shy: the tarantella gave thousands of costumed European folk an excuse to go footloose and defy social convention. (From "Stomp: A History of Disco and Invertebrates")

Once bitten, not shy: the tarantella gave thousands of colorfully garbed barefoot Europeans an excuse to go footloose and defy social convention. (From “Stomp: A History of Disco and Invertebrates”)

. . . Except for the tarantella dance—anybody can see why dancing deliriously and merrily groping your fellow rustics would be a big hit. Yes, officer, the spider made me twerk.

That’s why an actual medical test for a brown recluse bite could be such a big leap. First for the patient—since spider bite diagnosis is so scattershot, so are the treatments. Are antibiotics required? Steroids? Excision? Just clean the wound and rest? Why is my “spider bite” showing evidence of MRSA or other infection—is that somehow conveyed by a spider? The above-mentioned article from Wayne County, Missouri, a place where brown recluses actually do reside, quotes the test’s co-developer as saying he knew of a child being unsuccessfully treated for brown-recluse bite when in fact she had a life-threatening infection. She died.

A venom test could clear the way to standardized, effective treatment and diminished threat to public health. Doctors can be dummkopfs, too:

A study published in the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine in 2007 found that South Carolina doctors diagnosed 738 brown recluse spider bites in 2004. However, since 1953 only 44 brown recluse specimens have been verified from six South Carolina counties.

But I’m also hoping the venom test will strike a blow for fact appreciation. It’s not good to walk around sweating bullets about non-threats. Not just spiders. If we can train ourselves to pay attention to careful science and swat away ignorant loudmouths, we can play a better hand in reality-based life. We’ll stop recoiling from spiders or vaccines or Happy Meals toys.



Spider with a Blue Dress, Blue Dress

Will these startups have legs?

No matter how you spin it, turning spider silk into a product is tough. For thousands of years people have understood that it has certain qualities humans can put to use, mostly based on how amazingly strong and light and tough it is. But nobody has ever created or engineered spider silk on a commercial scale, even in an age where technology blossoms as never before.

A fun book, aimed at younger readers, explores the quest to commercialize spider silk. Lots of cute goat pictures and modest Canadian optimism.

A fun book, aimed at younger readers, explores the quest to commercialize spider silk. Lots of cute goat pictures and modest Canadian optimism, eh.

Remember the goats? They’re still around, but the effort to cash in on “spider goats” is moribund, despite what Al Gore said at SXSW just a few months ago. Feta is easy, fiber is hard.

The simpler, lower-tech method of wrangling spiders—patiently unspooling them by hand, like so many little bobbins—is never going to go big. There’s just too much effort for too little product. And they kinda bite. I’d say the livestock were also too small, but that’s never seemed to inhibit the silkworm industry. No, the problem is output.

Then there’s Spiber, a name so goofy it’s being used twice: once by a Swedish research company and again by a Japanese startup. A contraction of “spider” and “fiber,” I’m sure, but I’d call myself Spfiber instead, or SPiB (pronounced “spibe”), or I don’t know. As long as a name’s going to sound wacky, go the whole wack. Both have cool futuristic websites, though the Japanese company has more of the coveted Steve Jobs “my future is your future, plus lots of white space” look.

Spiber of Japan is surging ahead in the business press because it says it’s almost ready to produce for real. It can already cook up a kilogram of spider silk protein a day, so the company says, which if I read right equals 29 million feet of synthetic silk thread. It hopes to produce far more as soon as 2015. The process uses “microbial fermentation,” which is rather elegantly vague. Both companies in fact hijack a bacterium, the notorious E. coli, to synthesize the protein that’s the basis of their silk.

QMONOS my house: This shimmering blue number is billed as the first garment ever made entirely from artificial spider silk. QMONOS is a shouty version of kumonosu, Japanese for spider web.

QMONOS my house: This shimmering blue number is billed as the first garment ever made entirely from artificial spider silk. QMONOS is a shouty version of kumonosu, Japanese for spider web (“Here at Spiber, the only thing missing is ‘U’!”)

What to do with oceans of artificial cobwebs? The Japanese are talking lightweight car parts and have linked up with Kojima Industries, a Toyota partner. Both outfits mention medical technology such as scaffolds for culturing tissues, wound healing, and bone repair.

These products are apparently made without the need for the second part of the spider’s magical apparatus, the spinneret. Those little aimable, controllable spigots are how a spider takes liquid silk and tugs it into the miraculous chain of proteins. The lack of such a mechanical device has been the downfall of other spider-silk ventures in the past. The Spibers are cagey about how they get around this problem.

Have the Spibers got what it takes? A dorky name is only half the battle, even for true beliebers. Wait and see.


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Posted by on June 24, 2013 in Spider science


“Dinner’s on me,” he says . . .


Table for one, please

If you ponder the question of why female spiders frequently eat their mates (frequently, not always) you sometimes arrive at the question, “Why not?” They’re usually solitary creatures, those spiders, with nothing to say to each other, no shared hobbies or interests, and they refuse to stay together for the children. In fact, sometimes they eat the children, but that’s another story.

A spider man that tumbles into a female spider’s embrace is likely to be smaller than she (easier to overpower), eager to get perilously close to her fangs, and a nice packet of nutrition for the future mother to be. All of which makes great sense … for her. But is a fella more than just a snack?

It turns out to be rather more mysterious. And I like mysterious spiders. A new study of wolf spiders in China (Pardosa pseudoannulata) tried to tease out the matter of who eats whom, how often, and under what circumstances. Was she just hungry? Was the luckless suitor too inexperienced? The scientists paired off dozens of spiders, both virgin and experienced, and tabulated a number of different ways the blind dates turned out.

I am Pardosa, hear me roar. Where's that bum that promised me dinner?

I am Pardosa, hear me roar. Where’s that bum that promised me dinner?

Ten percent of the virgin females ate their dates without even mating. Twenty-eight percent ate them right after mating. Both hungry gals (as opposed to recently fed) and those who had previously mated or laid egg sacs were more aggressive than the debutantes. The bigger the size differential (dimorphism) the more likely the male would become a meal. Nobody got eaten during the act itself. All very gothic and kind of comprehensible.

At this point, do the numbers … most of the males therefore got away. That’s interesting in its own right. More interesting is what follows.

There turned out to be a clear result from all these enchanted encounters: the females that had noshed on a male after mating had the same number of offspring as those who hadn’t (in other words, fecundity was unaffected) but those offspring survived better. They were vigorous spiderlings who looked to have a better shot at making it to adulthood. That rings the Darwinian gong in the clearest possible way: cannibalizing a mate gives your progeny, your genes, a leg up—eight legs up—in the grand contest with no finish line.

I have to chide the Economist, which otherwise I honor and adore, for reporting on this phenomenon with a lack of journalistic objectivity. It’s so hard for the Brits to think straight about spiders. The male “thus probably … wants to be eaten, for the good of his posterity,” writes Reggie or Nigel. And the salmon swims upstream to spawn because he wants to star in a Discovery Channel documentary, right?

Of course not. Spiders and salmon don’t want anything of the kind. Nor do they set up IRAs and college accounts for their offspring. If daddy long-legs’ death contributes to the hardiness of baby long-legs, than it’s going to happen. You don’t need God or Dr. Spock to coax it along. We packets of DNA do things like that because our ancestors, having done them, thrust their genes into the future, our present. And we will continue doing the things that work, because they have worked.

A remaining question, in the Mystery of the Dined-On Daddy, is what exactly his little carcass does for his mate and her egg sac. Nobody knows what the secret ingredient is, if there is one. Maybe the least romantic females were already equipped to make better offspring, so the male just managed to get a bad spin on the Wheel of Life even as his genes hit the jackpot.

At any rate, dude probably should have learned to dance.


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Posted by on December 20, 2012 in Spider science