Monthly Archives: June 2012

“The Great Big Hairy Spider”

A Musical Interlude (or: Raffi’s Nightmare)


C’mon, kids, sing along!

Ohhhhhhh …



[To the tune of “The Itsy-Bitsy Spider”]

The great big hairy spider

Leaped out and killed a bug

Sucked the corpse dry

And dropped it on the rug

Then it hunkered down

And laid a million eggs

And a million baby spiders

Came crawling up your legs!


Dad! It’s no fun without the puppets. Put down the glass of wine and do it right.

(Sigh) all right . . .


♬ Ohhhhhhh … ♫


“The great big hairy spider . . . “

” … leaped out and killed a bug”

“Sucked the corpse dry . . . “

“. . . and dropped it on the rug”

“Then it hunkered down . . . “

“. . . and laid a million eggs”

“And a million baby spiders . . . “

“. . . came crawling up your legs!”


OK, sleep tight!


Leave a comment

Posted by on June 21, 2012 in Myths and Calumnies


I’m being stalked by a jumping spider

Man in black

Three times in a year this audacious spider—hey, that’s its actual common name, the audacious jumping spider—has leaped into my life. Not the same actual spider, but different individuals of the species Phidippus audax in different places.

“Every breath you take … every move you make …” Sting, you say? No, but I can bite.

One even posed for some surprisingly good (if fuzzy) close-ups in which it appeared to have been preening its handsome, hairy self in the reflection of my iPhone.

I don’t remember ever seeing this species until a year ago, despite a lifetime spent in its range. Then, last summer, my daughter was planting trees and texted me a blurry snap of a spider her fellow planters thought was worrisome. It was loitering on a tree trunk with a grasshopper it had caught. A quick check with Professor Internet suggested Phidippus audax, and I told her there was nothing to be concerned about, unless you were a grasshopper. That’s me, spider tech support.

Just trying to blend in with the toddler outfits. What? It’s SoCal. We shop.

And then there was the children’s section of this precious twee earthy gift shop we were visiting in Costa Mesa a few weeks ago. The specimen you see in my photos was hanging out amid some pastel-colored little frocks, as I recall. Bold, indeed! Borderline pervy. Resisting my efforts to catch it on an envelope, it sidled into a box holding a hot-chocolate mug. Thankfully, no haters were about, nor fierce warrior moms. When I tipped the spider out of the box, it hung on with a dragline, giving me time to walk it to the door and let it land in the bushes. The clerks said they appreciated my green gesture, though they kept their distance and emitted faint screams.

A mere day later, my daughter and I were touring the restored wetlands at Bolsa Chica Beach, feeling fine to see how nice were the marshes and chaparral at what my family used to call Tin Can Beach. At the visitor center, housed in a biggish trailer, we saw the usual pickled and stuffed marine specimens and blowsy dioramas you’d expect at a site where the budget all goes to land acquisition, not fancy displays. But lo: in the corner of a plastic terrarium, a huddled black blob that looked strangely familiar. The young docents didn’t know what it was.

My cue! Out came the phone, I called up these photos, and asked, “Does it look like … THIS?” And how much better does it get than having a big, clear picture of the very jumping spider in question, right there at the ready? It doesn’t. It was like that scene in “Annie Hall” where Woody Allen drags Marshall McLuhan out from behind a potted plant to explain a Marshall McLuhan concept. Now the audacity was all mine.

Lots of spiders are soft of hue and hard to tell apart. Not this guy. Jet black with white highlights, built like a car, and often displaying shimmering green jaws. Not huge, but it has a presence: it might be the size of a quarter, legs included. I don’t know if it’s “audacious” because of its bold outfit or its bold habits. Either works. It prowls instead of lurking, so you’re apt to see it walking around in its stop-start manner wherever there might be prey. Two big, soulful, catlike main eyes, like all jumping spiders. At mating time, the males drum and dance and carry on. Don’t we all.

Leave a comment

Posted by on June 14, 2012 in Salticidae (jumping spiders)


Swatting down the angry spiders of Assam

Three and even more cheers for the level-headed journalists of India! who took that crazy spider story in Assam and dragged it into the cold light of day. You might have read those tales about big, huge, ENORMOUS dark-colored spiders being spotted in large numbers where they hadn’t before. Biting people, disrespecting cultural festivals, sending a few people to an early grave. First stories indicated they were giant (photos indicate otherwise) or called them “tarantulas” (again, photos are unclear), and cooked up a stew of overreaction seasoned with muddy facts.

No U.S. news outlets parachuted into the spider zone, so who knows what the arachnids would have done when confronted by Anderson Cooper and his accusing baby blues. So all we heard at first from this remove were tales from an echo chamber. Given the way these stories usually play out, how delightful to see how aggressively the Indian media smacked down the misinformation:

No evidence of spider swarms. Two people who died were swiftly cremated and evidence indicates one was bitten by a snake, and the other might have had an adverse reaction to the folk treatment inflicted on him. Arachnologists identified the supposed baddy as a common enough spider, not medically significant. The government even handed out pamphlets urging people not to panic, and pointing out that any “aggressiveness” on the spiders’ part was probably due to their being more noticeable at breeding time while on their nuptial stroll. A handful of people reliably reported as suffering spider bites (“I picked it up,” one admitted to the camera) were simply treated and released.

I liked the coverage on one website dedicated to covering “the marginalized areas of India.” pointed out that frightened people were killing spiders on sight, which was likely to harm the ecosystem. That’s a germane point your average breathless rumormonger rarely makes. Wipe out spiders and you’ll give free rein to crop pests, malaria-carrying mosquitoes, and who knows what other invertebrates and nasties.

(That site wants to be a “voice of sanity” for regions where good reporting is hard to find. Not perfectly objective or comprehensive, but a source of reliable information for intelligent decision-making. Wow. Missed the Web 2.0 version of online news in a big way, didn’t they?)

The India spider panic began more than a month ago, and I’d call it a Rorschach test for spider phobia if the term “Rorschach test for . . .” weren’t so overused and abused. (Same with “tabula rasa.”) Let’s just call it a great example of how spider fear can amplify and twist stories, and keep skepticism at arm’s length because when you’re talking about spiders, of course they’d do exactly that, wouldn’t they? The Times of India, which unlike its compatriots did not acquit itself well, even used the phrase “eight-legged freaks.”

And, oh god. One guy thinks spider swarms mean Gaia is fighting back. A blogger on NPR confidently asserted: “Assram state doesn’t have any poisonous spiders.” Uh, Assram? No venomous spiders? What do the spiders of Assam inject, Sunny Delight?

The crack news team at the Long Island Press illustrated their story with a picture of a fake spider from the “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” movie. Note to crack news team: spiders don’t scowl.

Meanwhile, HuffPo thinks there are vampire spiders.

Mamma mia, if it's-a not-a one-a stereotype, it's another! Whattaya gonna do.(Lycosa tarantula photo © J. Coelho, Creative Commons)

Spider hysteria has been kind of quiet lately. The Assam story echoes the folk fears that inspired the tarantella, the dance craze based on the belief that one had to boogie down and shimmy out the venom of the field spider that inspired the word “tarantula” (the spiders of Taranto, Italy, were probably not tarantulas but wolf spiders). I bet the tarantella has launched a thousand dissertations about medicine, mental health, and bacchanalian behavior. I only note that a spider—not an ant, not a bee, not a beetle, not even a rabid dog—kindled such a strange belief. Ancient or medieval or modern, people are always quick to tremble over the small dangers presented by spiders, even when they should be worrying about the large dangers of MRSA or viruses or much bigger animals with much bigger teeth. Or, if you live in Assam, cobras.

Also I think of those cohorts of schoolkids (typically girls) who develop strange speech patterns or tics or bruises en masse, blaming a purported toxic dump or a funny smell or a locally defamed creepy animal, only to miraculously recover. Watch for a fifth-grade class somewhere to be pursued by an army of recluses with a sudden appetite for ankles. And squeeeee! . . . off they go.

The Assam spiders surely were there all along, minding their own business in the woods and fields, until somebody trod on a few burrows or tipped over the wrong hollow log. Poke ’em with a stick and they display “aggressive behavior” toward the huge mammal that can crush out their life. Wouldn’t you?