Put down the comic books. This is science

17 May

Huffington Post, how do I hate thee? Let me count the ways … OK, just one for now. But it’s a big one. It’s your “coverage” of science. Sciiiience. You know—the topic that has to be reported really carefully, and where you really have to get the words right, and it can’t be goosed up by inaccurate headlines?

“Tarantula silk could shoot from spider’s feet like Spiderman, scientists say,” brays the headline. But they don’t. And it doesn’t. And the initial tease—that silk can be extruded from a spider’s foot—appeared more than a year ago, to be followed by a couple of thundering rebuttals by heavyweight spider anatomists who had studied and published for decades. And even the first story didn’t say silk could “shoot” anywhere, only that it could be dabbed here and there to help a big spider keep its footing in a precarious place.

That’s a cool thing to explore. Evolution may have equipped ancient spiders with different silk capabilities than they have now. But the hypothesis that tarantulas employ silk-producing “spigots” amongst their toes has already been elegantly rebutted in the Journal of Experimental Biology, the place where the first paper appeared. The scientists challenged the hypothesis by covering the tarantulas’ spinnerets, the organs at the tip of the abdomen that are the only known places where a spider secretes silk, with wax. Traces of silk on the feet vanished. Ergo, the silken slippers had come from the spinnerets all along.

Some of the sensory organs of a solifugid, or "camel spider" (an arachnid but not in fact a spider). ©Journal of Arachnology

I’m just an amateur, but even I’ve read enough about spider morphology to recognize the structures that this correspondent had never seen before, these purported spigots. They’re chemoreceptors of some kind. The esteemed spider researcher Rainer Foelix, one of the aforementioned heavyweights, is the godfather of the spider textbook (yes, quite a specialized field). His works are filled with astonishing electron micrograph images of such structures, which look like a long, slender thorn or hair with an opening at the end. Spiders’ bodies are covered with thousands of these tiny biological instruments, along with others even stranger, with names like slit sensilla and lyriform organs. They form a neural network that tells the animal about its orientation, the position of its limbs, the physical load on its body, and its environment. The purpose of some of them is mysterious. These organs are the reason that an animal that is essentially blind, despite its abundance of eyes, can maintain such a sophisticated understanding of its surroundings: prey, moisture, dangers, weather, mating opportunities.

These are deep wonders, part of the reason I appreciate spiders so much. What we see from our human heights is a small, obscure being, going about its business with a stony disregard for us (oh, except for its lying awake at night, plotting to bite innocent schoolchildren, but that’s just insomnia. They don’t have late-night TV or Ambien). Of all animals they may be the ones most often seen through a glass darkly. But the view from a book like “A Spider’s World: Senses and Behavior,” by arachnologist Friedrich Barth, is vivid and literally otherworldly.

(Barth, by the way, works extensively with Cupiennius salei, a chunky tropical spider that sometimes hitchhikes in fruit shipments and is often accused of being Phoneutria fera, a much scarier individual. Cupiennius isn’t big and bad, it’s just big. But watch how fast a British grocer can scream that he’s found “the world’s deadliest spider” lurking in the bananas! It’s probably poor Cupiennius, chilled to the spinnerets.)

Foelix and Barth explore the wonders—not just anatomy but spider behavior, another planet alien to us—and lead science forward micron by micron. These books are never easy reading, and much of the science is beyond me (sometimes I just look at the pictures), but ultimately the diligent arachnologists run with the Carl Sagan pack, the Stephen Jay Goulds, who stress that wonder is out there. Not found by stretching human understanding and schemata over the universe like some sort of shabby cloak, but by letting these alien worlds of stars and animals and physics press their stories on us, and on our philosophies and gods.

So HuffPo, you shabby cloak, stop treating science like some throwaway bulletin about what the Hollywood hormones did today. Don’t you want another Pulitzer? You got the first one by nailing a story, getting it right the old-fashioned way. You won’t get another by spotting Spider-Man in the bananas. Don’t make Cupiennius come over there and bite you.



Leave a Reply