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Wikimedia Commons

Even Entomologists Are Scared of Spiders

Wikimedia Commons
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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Big Questions
What's the Difference Between Gophers and Groundhogs?
Gopher or groundhog? (If you chose gopher, you're correct.)
Gopher or groundhog? (If you chose gopher, you're correct.)
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Gophers and groundhogs. Groundhogs and gophers. They're both deceptively cuddly woodland rodents that scurry through underground tunnels and chow down on plants. But whether you're a nature nerd, a Golden Gophers football fan, or planning a pre-spring trip to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, you might want to know the difference between groundhogs and gophers.

Despite their similar appearances and burrowing habits, groundhogs and gophers don't have a whole lot in common—they don't even belong to the same family. For example, gophers belong to the family Geomyidae, a group that includes pocket gophers (sometimes referred to as "true" gophers), kangaroo rats, and pocket mice.

Groundhogs, meanwhile, are members of the Sciuridae (meaning shadow-tail) family and belong to the genus Marmota. Marmots are diurnal ground squirrels, Daniel Blumstein, a UCLA biologist and marmot expert, tells Mental Floss. "There are 15 species of marmot, and groundhogs are one of them," he explains.

Science aside, there are plenty of other visible differences between the two animals. Gophers, for example, have hairless tails, protruding yellow or brownish teeth, and fur-lined cheek pockets for storing food—all traits that make them different from groundhogs. The feet of gophers are often pink, while groundhogs have brown or black feet. And while the tiny gopher tends to weigh around two or so pounds, groundhogs can grow to around 13 pounds.

While both types of rodent eat mostly vegetation, gophers prefer roots and tubers (much to the dismay of gardeners trying to plant new specimens), while groundhogs like vegetation and fruits. This means that the former animals rarely emerge from their burrows, while the latter are more commonly seen out and about.

Groundhogs "have burrows underground they use for safety, and they hibernate in their burrows," Blumstein says. "They're active during the day above ground, eating a variety of plants and running back to their burrows to safety. If it's too hot, they'll go back into their burrow. If the weather gets crappy, they'll go back into their burrow during the day as well."

But that doesn't necessarily mean that gophers are the more reclusive of the two, as groundhogs famously hibernate during the winter. Gophers, on the other hand, remain active—and wreck lawns—year-round.

"What's really interesting is if you go to a place where there's gophers, in the spring, what you'll see are what is called eskers," or winding mounds of soil, Blumstein says [PDF]. "Basically, they dig all winter long through the earth, but then they tunnel through snow, and they leave dirt in these snow tunnels."

If all this rodent talk has you now thinking about woodchucks and other woodland creatures, know that groundhogs have plenty of nicknames, including "whistle-pig" and "woodchuck," while the only nicknames for gophers appear to be bitter monikers coined by Wisconsin Badgers fans.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Animals
Watch Christmas Island’s Annual Crab Migration on Google Street View
Google
Google

Every year, the 45 million or so red crabs on the remote Australian territory of Christmas Island migrate en masse from their forest burrows down to the ocean to mate, and so the female crabs can release their eggs into the sea to hatch. The migration starts during the fall, and the number of crabs on the beach often peaks in December. This year, you don’t have to be on Christmas Island to witness the spectacular crustacean event, as New Atlas reports. You can see it on Google Street View.

Watching the sheer density of crabs scuttling across roads, boardwalks, and beaches is a rare visual treat. According to the Google blog, this year’s crabtacular finale is forecasted for December 16, and Parks Australia crab expert Alasdair Grigg will be there with the Street View Trekker to capture it. That is likely to be the day when crab populations on the beaches will be at their peak, giving you the best view of the action.

Crabs scuttle across the forest floor while a man with a Google Street View Trekker walks behind them.
Google

Google Street View is already a repository for a number of armchair travel experiences. You can digitally explore remote locations in Antarctica, recreations of ancient cities, and even the International Space Station. You can essentially see the whole world without ever logging off your computer.

Sadly, because Street View isn’t live, you won’t be able to see the migration as it happens. The image collection won’t be available until sometime in early 2018. But it’ll be worth the wait, we promise. For a sneak preview, watch Parks Australia’s video of the 2012 event here.

[h/t New Atlas]

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