dance of the tarantula and other spider myths


Right now the American Museum of Natural History is running an exhibition about arachnids called “Spiders Alive!

brown recluse

image via the american museum of natural history

The exclamation is with good reason since the spiders really are alive. Safely ensconced behind glass but alive all the same. I’m not one of those people who gets freaked out by spiders but, even so, there’s something inherently creepy about them. Maybe it’s those wonderfully sinister names, which look like they could be splashed across the title sequence of a fifties B-movie: The Black Widow! The Brown Recluse! Tarantula!

Actually, the tarantula is a good example of how the popular imagination has demonized spiders. The vision of a hairy-legged tarantula coming in through an open window at night is a cinematic shorthand for everything that makes our skin crawl about them.

But even their name is a testament to the mythology of fear we’ve built around them. In ancient times the inhabitants of Taranto, a town in southern Italy, were terrified of a species of wolf spider which lived locally. When they were bitten by the spider the townsfolk would perform a frenetic dance in the belief that this would shake out the poison (though it turns out the spider’s venom was not fatal to humans).

When early European colonizers of the New World were faced with the big hairy spiders of the tropics they recalled the dance of Taranto when finding a name for these creatures. The irony is that tarantulas pose virtually no threat to humans because – counter-intuitive as it might sound – bigger spiders tend to have less powerful venom.

In fact, while most spiders produce venom fewer than one percent are dangerous to humans. That’s just 200 species out of a total of over 42,000. Of course our fear of arachnids is not totally groundless. Some can give you a nasty bite, others can jolt you with a wicked dose of poison and a few of them occasionally kill.

Gooty sapphire ornamental spider

image via the american museum of natural history

Many species of spider are dimorphic, which means the female is larger than the male. This means you’re much worse off getting bitten by a female black widow since she carries more poison. Most humans will survive a bite from a black widow (though you should seek medical help immediately, especially in the case of the elderly or young children). The same cannot always be said of the amorous male black widow who is frequently killed and eaten immediately after mating.

Arachnophobia, or the fear of spiders, is one of the most common phobias. According to some statistics, around 10 percent of men and 50 percent of women have an irrational fear of arachnids, which also include scorpions. If this is really true then you can’t help feeling sorry for the poor spider, who seems fated to suffer from a permanent image crisis. Fortunately for our arachnid cousins, this exhibition goes some way to redressing the balance by explaining just how amazing these creatures are.

Did you know, for example, that spiders have been on earth for 300 million years? Or that they taste with the hairs on their legs? Here’s another interesting tidbit: In the World War II the U.S. Army used black widow silk to make crosshairs for sighting devices on their weaponry. Meanwhile, in 2010 scientists identified a spider silk, from the caerostris darwini species on Madagascar, which is ten times tougher than Kevlar.

the black widow

image via the american museum of natural history

Near the end of this brilliant exhibition there’s a talk by an arachnid expert who takes out a live tarantula to show the crowd. When I was there most of the audience were kids.

“How did you get to work with spiders?” One little boy asked in the Q&A, evidently eyeing the expert’s job for himself.

“It’s simple,” she answered. “You just have to really love them.”

Easier said than done for a lot of us I would imagine.