An Arachnophile's Bible

"Spiders!" I yelled, "Oh my god, spiders!"

Such an utterance may well epitomise the human relationship with the order Araneae - their hairy bodies and scuttling character a visceral trigger of fear and loathing for many. However, in this case the above words were shouted not in contempt or aversion but instead, excitement and glee. They were the words I spoke when this book was first presented to me.

Image: CSIRO Publishing

Image: CSIRO Publishing

Natural history field guides exist for a plethora of taxa in Australia. There are, of course, numerous bird guides from various authors, each with their own status in the birdwatching community. There are guides on reptiles and frogs and guides on mammals, and there are guides on invertebrates too. Waterbug books help people to identify aquatic macroinvertebrates, while other guides such as Insects of South Eastern Australia aim to give people an idea of the ecology and behaviour of our smaller earthlings. Butterfly guides often take the cake when it comes to illustration and photography and there are numerous publications for an enthusiast to choose from. Yet, though my bookshelf can aid you in sorting swallow-tails from skippers and distinguishing dunlin from dowitcher, I have long battled to find an equivalent resource for the "eight-legged freaks" I so love.

As Robert Whyte and Greg Anderson, authors of A Field Guide to Spiders of Australia, attest: "In 2007 if there had already been a modern field guide with colour photographs...this project would not have been started." It was around this time that my own interest in spiders- or "arachnophilia", as the authors put it - was beginning to emerge. This time in my life stood in stark contrast with the years of my childhood when I felt very differently towards them. I have vivid memories of waking to find a spider crawling on the ceiling above my bed on a number of occasions. In my young mind's eye, they were enormous and sinister-looking beasts and I was quick to call on my father to dispatch them.              

Yet, years later, something changed. My knee-jerk aversion to spiders was replaced with a sense or curiosity, which was soon followed by a strong admiration and enthusiasm for these creatures. What caused this change?

The guide dubs this guy a shaggy, red-headed house hopper. Works for me. He's pictured here with another jumping spider for a meal.  Image: Chris McCormack

The guide dubs this guy a shaggy, red-headed house hopper. Works for me. He's pictured here with another jumping spider for a meal. Image: Chris McCormack

I see you!  Image: Chris McCormack

I see you! Image: Chris McCormack

A camera. Or, more to the point, the new way in which it allowed me to view spiders. Suddenly I was able to take a photo of a web-weaving member of my household and look upon their minute features in detail. For the first time I could really see them; their eyes, their fangs, their palps, and more. Far from causing visceral fear or disgust, my new-found ability to capture their likeness stirred in me a sense of intrigue and affection. I pondered their existence and their stories. Why did certain species look and behave as they did, and what had brought this particular individual to this place at this time? Like many people who spend time observing animals, I began to notice the quirks of different genera. I was delighted by the curiosity of jumping spiders and found the shy, reclusive nature of black house spiders endearing. These scuttling, crawling, jumping, spinning creatures were neither sinister nor beastly: they were fascinating, beautiful, and even - as the authors put it - "cheeky and disarming".

While some have hypothesised that the fear many of us have of spiders is an evolutionary adaptation - a form of biophobia - Whyte and Anderson make plain their theory that such aversions are learned. Whatever the case, it is clear these fears and prejudices can be unlearned, as I (and many others who have battled with far more crippling spider-based anxieties) can attest. My adolescent indulgence in photography completely changed the way I view spiders, and so I’ve no doubt that a guide such as this, replete with stunning photographs of professional quality, can do the same for many others. Here, you have an opportunity to look confidently upon a world you might rarely dare to glance at in other circumstances. Be bold, and with this book as your guide, challenge your perspective of spiders, not only for their sake but because "To be able to identify and understand these creatures will surely make the time you spend in natural places more vibrant and meaningful."

Helpis sp.   Image: Chris McCormack

Helpis sp. Image: Chris McCormack

Lynx spiders prowling the undergrowth.  Image: Chris McCormack

Lynx spiders prowling the undergrowth. Image: Chris McCormack

For those already willing to give spiders a chance and who are looking for a practical means to identify them, this too is your book. While no physically lift-able book could hope to photographically catalogue the some 4,000 known Australian spider species, this guide is nonetheless impressively comprehensive. Its some 1,300 colour photographs will provide you with an indispensable resource for identification.

With that said, you might wonder when such a book would be of use. Well, aside from being handy for knowing the names of your many house guests, the guide will provide you with the ability - and motivation - to seek out and explore species new to you, and possibly even new to science! As the authors note, we've barely scratched the taxonomic surface of Australian spider genera: there could be as many as 20,000 species in all. If you're unsure of how you might stumble upon an opportunity to put this book to good use, consider as the authors have that there may be as many as 500 spiders in any square metre of grassy field. If 500 spiders per square metre of field isn't reason enough to use a spider field guide I don't know what is...

A huntsman waits for nightfall.  Image: Chris McCormack

A huntsman waits for nightfall. Image: Chris McCormack

For existing arachnophiles, this book is a must-have and will become a go-to resource for your passionate pursuit of the palpy. For those not yet in love with spiders - even those deathly afraid of them - I implore you to give it a chance. As renowned nature writer Tim Low states in the book's foreword:

"Submitting to the pages that follow could change your life."

A Field Guide to Spiders of Australia is due out in June. Head to the CSIRO Publishing website to pre-order your copy.          

Chris McCormack
Chris graduated from The University of Melbourne with a Master's of Science in Zoology and has spent the past two years working for the Victorian government delivering citizen science projects. He is the Managing Director of Wild Melbourne and pursues his interests in science and natural history through the mediums of film, photography and written communication. 

You can find him on Twitter @Chris_M_McC

Banner image courtesy of Chris McCormack.