Shedding Light on the Shadows: The Art of Seduction in a Sunken World

Natural history documentaries have long followed a certain formula. David Attenborough and the BBC set the stage long ago for what we now take for granted as the typical nature programs that reveal the lives of the natural and the non-human. In the 1950s, though, such ideas were revolutionary and provided a novel way to bring the true wild into people’s living rooms. There will always be a place for these classic documentaries – I don’t think it could ever be said that the work of Attenborough will at any point be irrelevant – but, like all art, there is always room for adaptation and imagination.

SIXTEEN LEGS arguably does just that. Described by creator Niall Doran as ‘essentially a love story’, the film tells the unique and at times fantastical tale of the Tasmanian cave spider (Hickmania troglodytes). A love story involving spiders may not immediately appeal to all, but it is an important story to tell. The result of five years of filming in dark and confined caves, and based on a scientific research project spanning decades, SIXTEEN LEGS is the brainchild of the team at Bookend Trust – a non-profit organisation based in Tasmania and focused on communicating and educating students and their communities about the natural world. Their documentary represents the culmination of art and science – the art of cinematography and storytelling, and the science of arachnology and ecology.

Niall Doran coming face to face with a Tasmanian cave spider.  Image: Joe Shemesh/Bookend Trust

Niall Doran coming face to face with a Tasmanian cave spider. Image: Joe Shemesh/Bookend Trust

Speaking with Niall, it is easy to comprehend the passion behind this immense project and why the likes of Neil Gaiman, Stephen Fry, Tara Moss, Kate Miller-Heidke, Adam Hills and Mark Gatiss all chose to be a part of it in various capacities. Niall places particular emphasis on the fact that the film is not simply the story of an everyday spider, but of one of the most ancient species of arachnids in the world, and a ‘story of the deepest caves in Australia’ and their ecology. He understands ‘why a lot of people dislike spiders’, but that there is a need to build empathy for them so that we can better understand their importance – especially for the male spider who, as with other species, often faces a grisly death when attempting to mate with a female. This is why, Niall explains, the film explores an age-old question for many spiders and other species: ‘How do I approach the female without dying?’ It is not surprising then, that the slogan for this love story reads: ‘Giant prehistoric spiders seek kinky love in the dark.'

It is important to start learning lessons from animals that have made it through extinction events before.

The Tasmanian cave spider in fact ‘represent[s] a global shift in spider evolution’ and is one of the oldest remnants of the time when some spiders evolved to become aerial predators, using their webs to catch prey. Their habitat – some of the deepest caves in Australia, measuring nearly 400 metres in depth (in comparison to most mainland caves of less than 200 metres) and sometimes in cavern systems extending for kilometres – might ‘actually have been the location that saved them over time’, according to Niall. Being at least 250 million years old, and possibly even older, this species would have seen (and escaped) two mass extinctions that wiped out other, less fortunate species. It is therefore a remarkable survivor in the grand scheme of things and subsequently a very important species for arachnologists, such as Niall, to study. We are at a point in human and environmental history where, Niall believes, ‘It is important to start learning lessons from animals that have made it through extinction events before.’ Tasmanian cave spiders ‘date back to at least the first age of the dinosaurs, have survived the splitting of the continents, and have endured the entirety of human civilisation’ – so there is indeed lots we can learn from them. 

He explains that the primary aim of the documentary is to ‘reach out to other audiences’, which is why Neil Gaiman was approached as the first choice for a key presence within the film. Gaiman is a master storyteller with an immense back catalogue of fiction publications that explore the weird, the wonderful and the otherworldly. Regarded especially for Stardust, Coraline and American Gods, he is well known in arts and pop culture communities, but perhaps less so in those of science. Although a welcome move for a literature-science geek such as myself, it is an undeniably unusual choice for a nature documentary. However, it does speak volumes about the current predicament for many trying to communicate science to the general public; we need both scientists and those of other industries to push for better communication of scientific concepts that improve the public’s appreciation for the natural world.  Niall believes that, in particular, ‘filmmaking is a great communication tool to teach people about natural history.’

The home of the Tasmanian cave spider, these dramatic caves set the scene for a large portion of the film.  Image: Joe Shemesh/Bookend Trust

The home of the Tasmanian cave spider, these dramatic caves set the scene for a large portion of the film. Image: Joe Shemesh/Bookend Trust

In addition to the caves and their arachnid residents, there is so much more to love about Tasmania's natural history, some highlights of which are also included in the film.  Image: Joe Shemesh/Bookend Trust

In addition to the caves and their arachnid residents, there is so much more to love about Tasmania's natural history, some highlights of which are also included in the film. Image: Joe Shemesh/Bookend Trust

So far, feedback from viewers strongly suggests that SIXTEEN LEGS ‘actually introduces them to a spider that they can adjust to and accept…They suddenly see the world from the spider’s point of view.’ Perhaps some of the most welcome feedback came from author George R.R. Martin, whose cinema in Santa Fe was the location of the first test screening of the film: ‘Giant Tasmanian Cave Spiders and Neil Gaiman!! What more could you possibly want???’ That’s one testimonial that will certainly draw in more than just the spider lovers.

Niall also admits that ‘we suffer a bit from the perception that science and art… are different towers.’ People have been attempting to bring the two together in myriad ways in recent years, and perhaps it is time for film to take the plunge, using the influence of fiction and fantasy to draw in more diverse audiences. And this documentary definitely has a twist. Alongside the customary narrative of the science behind the Tasmanian cave spider’s life history, there is a more poetic side to the story. This is where Gaiman’s role comes in, bringing a ‘dark-fantasy’ edge to reinforce this already thrilling story about one of nature’s most unnerving organisms. Many would believe fantasy has no place in science – but isn’t truth often stranger than fiction? Niall tells me that ‘the film takes you into a world that is so unusual that it starts to surpass fantasy.’

...it’s impossible for people to look at this film and not see the absolute beauty of the natural world.

There is also a third component to the film: a global perspective that takes into account how ‘these spiders fit into the global story of spider evolution.’ But if you’re worried about too much spider love, Niall assures me that a large portion of the documentary is dedicated to exploring and celebrating the natural history of the caves themselves – not just the spiders – as well as the stunning and unique environment of Tasmania in which the film is set.

Niall describes the cinematography as ‘absolutely glorious’ and compellingly explains that ‘it’s impossible for people to look at this film and not see the absolute beauty of the natural world.’ To him, ‘photographs are brilliant, but they’re that one frozen moment in time… Instead, you can construct a sequence and a narrative with film.’ Overall, the documentary almost functions ‘as an expedition into a cave, so by the end you feel like you’ve started on the surface, you’ve descended into the cave…and then you return to the surface having experienced this unique and unusual world.’

Image: Bookend Trust

Image: Bookend Trust

A short behind-the-scenes film, 16 Legs: Spider Love, has already received an impressive number of accolades in the lead-up to public screenings, and now the full feature, SIXTEEN LEGS itself, has won a Gold Award from Australian Cinematographers Society for Wildlife & Nature Cinematography, and Official Selection at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival 2017 and the Environmental Film Festival in the Nation’s Capital (Washington D.C., where it will screen at the prestigious Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, 2017), amongst several others. Additionally, a review of the full documentary was presented as the headline article in the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s review of Science Books and Films in late 2016 – as the publishers of the world-renowned journal Science, this is considered significant recognition.

As the awards and festival selections suggest, this unique film is paving the way for a more unusual form of nature documentary: one that will hopefully appeal to a wider audience than simply those already possessing a passion for spiders and the natural world. Niall describes how ‘nature documentaries need to compete in a fast-paced, multi-tasking, media-rich world. We need to draw in audiences beyond the usual, including pop culture audiences that might not otherwise look twice at a nature documentary.’

A strong supporter of both the arts and sciences myself, it is difficult to disagree. We have unfortunately reached a stage where just doing the science is not enough – we need to passionately and accessibly communicate the importance of non-human species, their environments and their relevance to the viewer, which will in turn create a better quality of life not just in nature, but in the homes of those watching as well.

SIXTEEN LEGS will be screening at The Astor this Sunday 5th March and will be the first test screening of the film in Australia – purchase your tickets here to see both the film and Neil Gaiman who will be in attendance. If you can’t make it, the team at www.sixteenlegs.com will advise of future screenings, including the opportunity to express interest in screenings near you. All film profits will go towards the nature education and communication projects of Bookend Trust, of which you can read more about on their main website here as well as their Expedition Class website here.

Rachel Fetherston

Rachel is an Arts and Science graduate and a freelance writer who is passionate about communicating the importance of the natural world through literature. She has completed an Honours year in Literary Studies, involving research into environmental philosophy and the significance of the non-human other. She is an editor and the Publications Manager for Wild Melbourne.

You can find her on Twitter at @RJFether.

Banner image courtesy of Joe Shemesh/Bookend Trust.


The Boy Who Looked: The Rediscovery of an Intertidal Spider

This is a guest article by Fam Charko. 

It is well known that in Australia many species of animal are still undescribed by science. A report published by the federal government in 2009 tells us that at that time, the number of described, published and accepted spider species was 6,615, while the estimated number of total Australian spiders was 31,338. It is therefore not surprising that new species are spotted regularly. What is surprising, however, is when a long-lost species is re-discovered in one of Melbourne’s most urbanised areas, by a 16-year-old.

Gio Fitzpatrick, now 19 and Youth Wildlife Ambassador of the Port Phillip EcoCentre, has been fascinated with local wildlife from the moment he could walk. Many St Kilda residents remember him walking around the St Kilda Botanic Gardens as a small boy, overturning stones and looking under leaves for bugs. Gio started environmental volunteering when he was 11 years old and has since deepened his generalist knowledge of local wildlife. He won the 2011 Young People’s Award of the City of Port Phillip’s Civic Awards for his work designing and building nest boxes for hollow-nesting animals in the urban environment.

Gio is adamant about educating people about the wildlife in their own urban environment. He is an active member of the Friends of Elster Creek and one of the most knowledgeable people on general species diversity of the lower Elster Creek catchment area. He spends a lot of time hosting local walks and activities that expose people to the hidden wildlife in their own backyard.

“It occurred to me a few years ago that this area still housed many species that had gone extinct in neighbouring areas,“ Gio says. “I started finding species that didn’t exist in urban areas around here anymore, like eastern rosellas and southern water skinks. This area seemed to be a time capsule of sorts. So I thought it was worth studying and conserving.”

Flashback to September 2013 and I was excited - though hardly surprised - when Gio announced that he’d found a marine spider at Elwood Beach that hadn’t been spotted in over 100 years.

“I was at the Elwood Beach foreshore, where I turned around a few rocks and saw a tiny spider with two enormous protruding jaws, scuttling away,” Gio said.

“Thinking that the intertidal zone - which is submerged in saltwater for several hours a day - was a strange place for a spider, I took some photos and sent them off to Museum Victoria to be identified.”

Ken Walker, Senior Curator of the museum’s entomology collection, responded quite excitedly that it was Desis kenyonae, spotted long ago for the first and only time when discovered in San Remo in 1902. Other species of the genus Desis were recorded 70 years ago in Sydney Harbour and over the last 50 years some have been observed living on the Great Barrier Reef, surviving total immersion of up to five consecutive days.

Intertidal spider Desis kenyonae. Images: Gio Fitzpatrick


Flashforward to 2016 and I’m interviewing Gio for Out Of The Blue, a radio program about marine news and developments on community radio station 3CR. We talk about the intertidal spider because Gio has just shot the world’s first ever film footage of this species.

“Intertidal spiders are ‘true spiders’ of the class Arachnida, and so they have to breathe air,” Gio explains. “They weave a little waterproof sack over a small hole in a rock in the intertidal zone, so that when the tide comes up and their rock submerges, they can breathe air.

Intertidal spiders Desis kenyonae. In most spider species, the female is larger, but in this species the female is smaller than the male. Video: Gio Fitzpatrick

In a community that is being rapidly urbanised, linking people with natural areas in their local environment is becoming more and more important. At the moment Gio is working on a comprehensive field guide of fauna of the lower Elster Creek catchment area.

“Not many people seem to know or appreciate quite what a special environment we have here,” he says, “and the closer I look, the more amazing things turn up that you really wouldn’t expect in a place like this.”

“I really love sharing that [local] story with people, because it really made me care about the place and I think that if other people could see that it is actually a living system, that they will treat it that way. And not just this place; it would also allow people a gateway into the broader world of nature.”

Gio Fitzpatrick can be contacted at gio@ecocentre.com. 

Banner image courtesy of Emma Walsh. 

Spider Crabs: No Rest for the Wicked

This is a guest post by Elodie Camprasse, a PhD student from Deakin University, Melbourne. 

Migration - when people hear this term, they usually picture herds of mammals (including people) or flocks of birds en route to places where they can find better conditions. However, did you know that Melbourne has a migration of its own in its underwater backyard? Giant spider crabs (Leptomithrax gaimardii) indeed put on a show every Winter in Port Phillip Bay. If you let me, I will take you on one of the most amazing dives where I was witness to this amazing event. Don’t worry though - you won’t have to get wet!

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  Giant spider crab ( Leptomithrax gaimardii) ; Photo: Elodie Camprasse

Giant spider crab (Leptomithrax gaimardii);
Photo: Elodie Camprasse

It is a chilly and dark Friday night and I am meeting with a bunch of very enthusiastic divers. We have all been looking forward to experiencing the annual spider crab migration. It is a first for me and even facing the cold, 12°C water of Blairgowrie could not take the excitement away. A nice, easy beach entry allows us to progressively get used to the water temperature before starting our actual dive under the pier. The first things we bump into are a tiny seahorse and a few stingarees, which I take as being good signs of the fascinating dive that is to come! As we swim towards the end of the pier, we cross paths with squids swimming in mid-water, porcupinefishes, big leatherjackets, colourful sea slugs and our torches reveal the vibrant colours of sponges. I am in awe already when we reach, at last, the spider crab aggregation. Here they are, hundreds of them, hanging out in about four to five metres of water. Most of them sport broken limbs and dull, old shells that they will need to get rid of within the next few weeks in order to grow bigger, this being the purpose of their migration. Crabs like to blend in and they tend to pick up bits and pieces from the sea floor and stick them on their shells in order to increase their camouflage. A few of them even ‘wear’ sponges on their heads and backs, ironically making them stand out even more as I am trying to spot the odd ones out to create better shots. As I focus on taking photos, a curious octopus cruises by to check me out.

Marching spider crabs in Blairgowrie. Photo: Elodie Camprasse

Marching spider crabs in Blairgowrie. Photo: Elodie Camprasse

This is only one of the few dives I was lucky enough to take part in during this yearly phenomenon. The other dives allowed me to witness the crabs’ movements and behaviours further, at various times of day and in different light conditions. Along with that, I was able to discover bizarre-looking critters, including tassled anglerfishes and stargazers, to name a few. I was amazed to observe the big piles that spider crabs often form at this season, sometimes reaching more than a metre in height, as they seek safety in numbers.

Spider crabs forming aggregations. Photo: Elodie Camprasse

Spider crabs forming aggregations. Photo: Elodie Camprasse

Towards the end of the migration, the last crabs switch from the sandy sea floor to the pylons and sponge gardens on the walls of the pier. This provides the now more isolated crabs with better protection. When they moult, the crabs release a specific scent that predators such as rays, seals and seabirds are able to pick up and follow to gorge themselves on freshly moulted and hence very soft individuals. They indeed need to wait a few days for their new, brighter-coloured shells to harden in order to become less vulnerable and leave the shallows to resume their solitary life in different parts of the bay. Watching the smooth stingrays circling in between the pylons and waiting for clumsy, freshly molted crabs to fall within their reach is quite a show! So too is observing the crabs extracting themselves from their old shells: a process that seems exhausting to them and can take up to approximately half an hour; it almost felt like I was watching a creature being born, right in front of my eyes. They usually free-fall in the water once they have managed to extract themselves from their old shells, rolling around the sea floor and looking stunned for a few minutes. Only when they are quick enough to recover their senses and climb back to the pylons are they able to escape the hungry rays. Nevertheless, more discrete critters join the frenzy. Small shrimps and seastars hang around the crabs to scrape the last bits of meat off the old shells. By this time, the bottom is strewn with discarded shells, adding to the already apocalyptic atmosphere.

Spider crab removing itself from its old shell. Photo: Elodie Camprasse

Spider crab removing itself from its old shell. Photo: Elodie Camprasse

There is still a lot of mystery revolving around the annual migration, which seems to happen at different sites in different years. Aggregations have indeed been observed at Rye, Sorrento and St Leonards in the past. Water temperatures or moon cycles might play a role in triggering the phenomenon, although this is only an educated guess. People used to believe that mating occurred after the crabs molted; this, however, is not supported by observations. There is not a lot of information about where these usually solitary animals spend the rest of the year and there have been aggregations in the forms of pyramids sighted at other times of year, whose purpose is unknown. Clearly, we still have a lot to learn about the migration and we will surely gain more information as enthusiastic divers and snorkelers continue to get in the water and share their sightings and behavioural observations on social media! So let us hope that next year, once again, there will be no rest for the wicked. 

For more, follow Elodie on Twitter!