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


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

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.

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:


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.