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Even Entomologists Are Scared of Spiders

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Wikimedia Commons

Some entomologists, the scientists that study insects, have a work life that presents a challenge: they’ve devoted their careers to creepy-crawly animals, work with them every day, sometimes get up close and personal with them and are maybe even fond of them, but they’re scared of or disgusted by spiders. 

After asking around among working entomologists, arachnologist Richard Vetter found 41 researchers who are afraid of spiders or at least averse to them, and discovered an apparent paradox. “They don't find anything gross about bugs in general—as long as those bugs have the right number of legs,” he writes in the new paper about his survey. “Despite the assumption that entomologists would extend warm feelings toward spiders because of their habituation to arthropods in general, arachnophobia does occur in some members of our profession. For these people, two more legs makes a big difference.”

Vetter interviewed these entomologists about their negative experiences with spiders and which aspects of spiders they don’t like, then had them complete a “Fear of Spiders Questionnaire,” rate their disgust and fear of spiders and give like/dislike scores to other animals. 

He got a wide range of responses. Some of the interviewees professed only a mild disgust or fear of spiders, but still claimed to react to them differently than to insects. For example, some of them said an insect crawling on their arm is tolerable, but a spider would get brushed away. One forensic entomologist who routinely works with maggots gave spiders a high disgust score on their survey and said that they would “rather pick up a handful of maggots than have to get close enough to a spider to kill it.” On the other hand, some entomologists’ scores and ratings suggest that they’re clinically arachnophobic. 

Like layperson arachnophobes, Vetter found that most of the entomologists developed their feelings toward spiders in childhood, often because of a negative incident. One scientist recounted that her father once teased her with a large spider in a jar and later watched a spider egg sac burst open on her mattress. Another described a childhood nightmare that recurred over four years, wherein she ran into the large web of a human-sized spider and woke up just before being eaten. Despite the distance of time and experience with insects, these fears couldn’t be overcome in adulthood. The researcher who had the eggs in her bed has such a strong fear of spiders that she had considered counseling, but avoided it for fear that she might have to encounter live spiders as part of her therapy. 

Of the things about spiders that the entomologists don’t like, a few stuck out. One was that “they bite,” even among the scientists that work with insects that also bite or sting. One researcher who works with Hymenoptera, the order that includes bees, wasps and ants, said that while he does get stung in his research and finds the stings painful, stinging insects still don’t provoke the same negative response that spiders do. 

Another thing the entomologists don’t like about spiders is the way they move. Sixty percent of the researchers said that the fact that spiders run fast and show up unexpectedly contributed to their feelings about them. One researcher (the eggs-in-the-bed lady again) had the opposite problem, and said it was the slower, more deliberate movements of spiders like tarantulas that bothered her. 

More than half of the entomologists also said that spiders’ many legs contributed to their fear and disgust. “Although this is also a common response from the general public, who are more accustomed to bipeds and quadrupeds,” Vetter notes, “it is curious that entomologists, who work with hexapods, would find the additional pair of legs in spiders to be a significant negative feature, instead of just assimilating spiders into the same broad arthropod morphological scheme.” Six legs are just fine. Eight? No thanks.

When the entomologists rated their like or dislike of 30 other animals, insects took four of the top five "like" spots, with butterflies getting the top score and dolphins breaking the insect monopoly. Spiders were, no surprise, ranked highly unlikeable, coming in second to last. The only animal the entomologists liked less was the tick. 

Vetter points out that other research has found that many arachnophobes anthropomorphize spiders, thinking of them as vengeful or malicious. The impression he got from his interviews, though, was that the entomologists didn’t do this and realized their fears or dislikes of spiders were paradoxical, but couldn’t overcome them. One of the scientists Vetter interviewed specialized in, of all things, spiders, and said that even though he worked with them professionally, he could not help but be creeped out by them. 

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Sylke Rohrlach, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0
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Animals
Scientists Discover 'Octlantis,' a Bustling Octopus City
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Sylke Rohrlach, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

Octopuses are insanely talented: They’ve been observed building forts, playing games, and even walking on dry land. But one area where the cephalopods come up short is in the social department. At least that’s what marine biologists used to believe. Now a newly discovered underwater community, dubbed Octlantis, is prompting scientists to call their characterization of octopuses as loners into question.

As Quartz reports, the so-called octopus city is located in Jervis Bay off Australia’s east coast. The patch of seafloor is populated by as many as 15 gloomy octopuses, a.k.a. common Sydney octopuses (octopus tetricus). Previous observations of the creatures led scientists to think they were strictly solitary, not counting their yearly mating rituals. But in Octlantis, octopuses communicate by changing colors, evict each other from dens, and live side by side. In addition to interacting with their neighbors, the gloomy octopuses have helped build the infrastructure of the city itself. On top of the rock formation they call home, they’ve stored mounds of clam and scallop shells and shaped them into shelters.

There is one other known gloomy octopus community similar to this one, and it may help scientists understand how and why they form. The original site, called Octopolis, was discovered in the same bay in 2009. Unlike Octlantis, Octopolis was centered around a manmade object that had sunk to the seabed and provided dens for up to 16 octopuses at a time. The researchers studying it had assumed it was a freak occurrence. But this new city, built around a natural habitat, shows that gloomy octopuses in the area may be evolving to be more social.

If that's the case, it's unclear why such octo-cities are so uncommon. "Relative to the more typical solitary life, the costs and benefits of living in aggregations and investing in interactions remain to be documented," the researchers who discovered the group wrote in a paper published in Marine and Freshwater Behavior and Physiology [PDF].

It’s also possible that for the first time in history humans have the resources to see octopus villages that perhaps have always been bustling beneath the sea surface.

[h/t Quartz]

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This Just In
Criminal Gangs Are Smuggling Illegal Rhino Horns as Jewelry
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iStock

Valuable jewelry isn't always made from precious metals or gems. Wildlife smugglers in Africa are increasingly evading the law by disguising illegally harvested rhinoceros horns as wearable baubles and trinkets, according to a new study conducted by wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC.

As BBC News reports, TRAFFIC analyzed 456 wildlife seizure records—recorded between 2010 and June 2017—to trace illegal rhino horn trade routes and identify smuggling methods. In a report, the organization noted that criminals have disguised rhino horns in the past using all kinds of creative methods, including covering the parts with aluminum foil, coating them in wax, or smearing them with toothpaste or shampoo to mask the scent of decay. But as recent seizures in South Africa suggest, Chinese trafficking networks within the nation are now concealing the coveted product by shaping horns into beads, disks, bangles, necklaces, and other objects, like bowls and cups. The protrusions are also ground into powder and stored in bags along with horn bits and shavings.

"It's very worrying," Julian Rademeyer, a project leader with TRAFFIC, told BBC News. "Because if someone's walking through the airport wearing a necklace made of rhino horn, who is going to stop them? Police are looking for a piece of horn and whole horns."

Rhino horn is a hot commodity in Asia. The keratin parts have traditionally been ground up and used to make medicines for illnesses like rheumatism or cancer, although there's no scientific evidence that these treatments work. And in recent years, horn objects have become status symbols among wealthy men in countries like Vietnam.

"A large number of people prefer the powder, but there are those who use it for lucky charms,” Melville Saayman, a professor at South Africa's North-West University who studies the rhino horn trade, told ABC News. “So they would like a piece of the horn."

According to TRAFFIC, at least 1249 rhino horns—together weighing more than five tons—were seized globally between 2010 and June 2017. The majority of these rhino horn shipments originated in southern Africa, with the greatest demand coming from Vietnam and China. The product is mostly smuggled by air, but routes change and shift depending on border controls and law enforcement resources.

Conservationists warn that this booming illegal trade has led to a precipitous decline in Africa's rhinoceros population: At least 7100 of the nation's rhinos have been killed over the past decade, according to one estimate, and only around 25,000 remain today. Meanwhile, Save the Rhino International, a UK-based conservation charity, told BBC News that if current poaching trends continue, rhinos could go extinct in the wild within the next 10 years.

[h/t BBC News]

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