arachnid

Patience

She was gorgeous in every way. I could watch her for hours as she danced in the moonlight. Even if she was sitting alone, blissfully unaware of my presence, I’d be transfixed by her quiet, unassuming sense of self-assurance. Each time we greeted each other at dawn and again at dusk, she would fill my days with optimism and bring comfort to my nights. I was in love.

The summer evening’s air was light and inviting, and rather than accept my friend’s offer to drive me home, I decided to take a relaxing walk. The night was quiet, all that could be heard was the gentle rustle of leaves in the gums, the odd creak in their branches and the crunch of fallen leaves and gravel underfoot. As I stared into the evening sky, the moon peered coyly out from behind the clouds like a child playing hide-and-seek. The night was perfect: ‘It can’t get better,’ I remember thinking.

Humming a tune and goofily dancing as I approached my house, I was suddenly startled and tripped over my two left feet. I fell onto my hands and rebounded back up just as quickly as I’d fallen. Dusting myself off, I glanced around to see if anyone had seen me fall to ease my sense of embarrassment. But it was as I turned to the right that she caught my eye. There, dressed in the most magnificent red and brilliant blue, was Patience. I could not mouth a word. I didn’t even realise my jaw had hit the ground… again! Even now, I have no words to describe how dumbfounded I was. What did Patience do? Nothing. She stared right back. Didn’t move an inch. I swear time had stopped for both of us. But then, as if shaking herself back into reality, she started to do the most incredible thing I’d ever seen.  

Patience. Image: Leonardo Guida

Patience. Image: Leonardo Guida

Patience’s long and slender legs, with the utmost grace and precision, began to move swiftly with dexterity and an incredible agility. Her dance was hypnotic to behold. It was like she was performing the tango, her legs shuffling with fervour yet her entire body gliding effortlessly around the dance floor. I couldn’t help but just stare. I even pulled out my phone and took a photo without asking! Rude, I know, but Patience didn’t seem to mind; she just kept weaving her web round and round as any garden orb weaver (Eriophora biapicata) would on a balmy summer’s night.

Yes, I’d fallen in love with a spider. Patience decided to call my front doorstep home. Typical of a garden orb weaver, Patience would meticulously and swiftly set up her web every night, and with just as much effort, take it down at dawn. Her web, anchored by the large shrubs and protruding lanterns either side of my doorstep, spanned my front door ready to catch unsuspecting insects attracted to the lanterns’ light. I suppose in a strange way, me leaving the light on for an hour or two was a gesture similar to preparing a nice meal for a partner or friend.

I’m sure I downright annoyed her sometimes. On a couple of occasions, I’d forget she was there and before I’d be able to open the door, the slight touch of her web in my face would throw me back. Fortunately for both of us, Patience was never on the web, just patiently sitting on the periphery waiting for the odd insect – and not me! – to come along and hit it. I soon realised, though, that Patience often changed the orientation of her web and it wasn’t always spanning the door. So rather than annoy her and play arachnid roulette every night, my housemate and I came up with a solution. We’d simply look out for the web, and whoever was home first would text the other: ‘Patience has her web up at the front. Go around the side.’ Going through the side gate to get inside really wasn’t that much extra effort and Patience was still able to do her thing, unaffected.

Garden Orb Weaver. Image: Leonardo Guida

Garden Orb Weaver. Image: Leonardo Guida

Patience and I only knew each other briefly. It was only a matter of a week or two before I realised there was no more web and there was no more Patience. Maybe a bird had taken her? Maybe she’d moved on? I don’t know, but as short as our acquaintance was, it was incredible. I called her Patience for the very fact that she taught me patience. Usually as if on auto-pilot, I would finish work, drive home, open the door, throw my bags down, prepare dinner, eat, wash dishes, and so on. Instead, because of Patience I had to slow down. I’d come home and slowly approach the door so as to not disturb her near-invisible web. I would stop for a little while, taking note of how her web glistened in the moonlight and how she danced tirelessly, weaving her web. Transfixed by her brilliant red and blue colouration, she made me ever so acutely aware of my presence and allowed me to feel completely in the moment. 

No matter how any day or night transpires, the simple act of patience, slowing to observe the tiny details of nature’s wonders, helps to put you at ease. It took an accidental encounter with a spider for me to truly appreciate that. 

An orb weaver in front of the moon. Image:  fir0002 , flagstaffotos.com.au - Own work, GFDL 1.2

An orb weaver in front of the moon. Image: fir0002, flagstaffotos.com.au - Own work, GFDL 1.2


Leo.jpg

Leonardo Guida

Following a childhood love for sharks, Leo recently completed his PhD at Monash University investigating the effects of fishing on shark and ray populations. He is Director of Community Operations for Wild Melbourne.

You can find him on Twitter at @ElasmoBro.


Banner photo: I, Luc Viatour, CC BY-SA 3.0

Spiders: Intimidating Intruders or Harmless Housemates?

Let’s face it – spiders aren't the most popular critters going around. Even among nature lovers, there are still a lot of arachnophobes. Arachnophobia is one of the most common fears, with estimates ranging from 3% to 30% of the population being affected. One study, done on 118 undergraduate students in the UK, found that a whopping 75% were mildly or severely afraid of spiders.  

The reason why arachnophobia is so prevalent may be because it has been ingrained in our biology through adaptive evolution – it pays to avoid things with deadly bites. Alternatively (or additionally), those who fear spiders may have been conditioned to do so from an early age (for example, if they have a parent who is an arachnophobe).

But whatever the reason, a lot of Aussies will say it’s a good thing to be afraid of spiders. They are the most widely distributed venomous animals in Australia, and yes – some of our species are deadly. But in reality, the vast majority of spiders pose little danger to humans and, as a whole, cause less deaths than snakes, sharks, bees, and even horses. Avoiding (or even killing) everything with eight hairy legs might be a bit of an overreaction. So, we thought we would compile a list of some of the most common spiders you are likely to see in the Greater Melbourne area and provide you with some insights into the scary – and not so scary – aspects of their biology.

Not as bad as you may think:

Huntsman

Image: Museum Victoria

Image: Museum Victoria

There are several species of huntsman around Melbourne and, if you’re not a fan of spiders, it’s unlikely you’d be super excited to find one of these guys camped out in your house or running across the dashboard of your car. But before you freak out and run a red light, remember that huntsman spiders are actually extremely timid. They are probably much more afraid of you! If you’re unlucky enough to get bitten, you’ll likely only experience a bit of discomfort and swelling because their venom is not very harmful to humans (but they do cause a lot of car accidents).

On the plus side, huntsmans can help maintain some of those other unwanted visitors in your home. They are visual predators with incredible eyesight that hunt for various creepy crawlies at night. They’re extremely quick and excellent at scaling vertical surfaces in search of a meal, such as insects like cockroaches that are often on the menu. So really, what’s not to love?

Garden orb weaver

We get a lot of orb weavers in my garden in inner city Melbourne - the telltale sign being the large, intricate webs they build to catch flying prey. They build these overnight, meaning unexpected encounters with humans doing a quick morning trip to the clothesline are common. But if this happens to you, never fear! The orb weaver’s bite is not dangerous, generally resulting in a localised reaction, so the worst that will happen is that you’ll have ruined the efforts of a poor spider’s all-nighter. Amazingly, the orb weavers in my backyard have begun to build their webs just above head-height to stop us messing up their hard work!

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Daddy-long-legs spider

You may have heard that the daddy-long-legs spider has the most poisonous venom of any spider – I remember when the rumour spread around my primary school – but there is no scientific evidence to support this. The venom of daddy-long-legs actually isn’t even that toxic to insects. The second part of the urban legend says that daddy-long-legs can’t inflict their supposedly extremely harmful venom on humans because their fangs are too tiny, but this has also been proven false. All the same, it’s very unlikely you’ll receive a bite from these guys, and if you do it’s probably nothing to worry about. What’s more is that these spiders are excellent at catching other spiders in their webs. So rather than sweeping up their webs at will, consider that they may be keeping more potent spiders at bay!  

Where to be careful:

Redback spider

Image: Doug Beckers / Wikimedia Commons

Image: Doug Beckers / Wikimedia Commons

Redback spiders are one of the most venomous in Australia – but no deaths have been recorded since the discovery of the anti-venom in 1950. While red markings on the females make them easy to spot, colour morphs do occur, so be wary of black or brown spiders with that characteristic, pea-shaped abdomen and long, slender legs. While if you do get bitten you should get it checked out as soon as possible, don’t fear this species' presence around the home too much. The females (who are capable of harmful envenomation) generally build their webs in dark, secluded locations and are unlikely to move from them unless forced. Many bites occur when people unwittingly put their hands into a web, where a female may be defending her egg sack. So before you go fossicking around in areas out of view, consider that you might be intruding on a protective mother’s patch.

White-tailed spider

White-tailed spiders are excellent hunters that do not require a web to catch their prey. They’re particularly partial to feeding on black house spiders and will pluck at their victim’s web, mimicking the vibrations of an ensnared insect. When their victim rushes out to claim their prize, the hunter becomes the hunted. Bites from a white-tailed spider are relatively common as they are frequently found inside, often hidden amongst bedding or clothing left on the floor. Their venom in some cases can cause pain and swelling at the bite site as well as nausea. White-tailed spiders have previously been blamed for causing long-term skin infections (necrosis) that result from bacteria found around the spider’s fangs – and not the venom itself – but there is little scientific evidence to support this.

Still worried about a spider you might come across? Then check out this great spider resource from Museum Victoria. If you are ever bitten by a spider that cannot be identified with certainty, it is advised to contact a medical professional if a serious or long term reaction develops. 


Ella Kelly

Ella is a PhD Candidate at the University of Melbourne, where she spends a lot of time thinking about why some quolls don’t eat cane toads (if only she could ask them!). She also enjoys talking and writing about science, and would ultimately love to have an actual impact on the conservation of Australia’s biodiversity.

You can find her on Twitter at: @elkelly1210 

 


Banner image courtesy of David McClenaghan / CSIRO. 

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.