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12 Awesome Spider Facts

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Ask most people their opinion of spiders, and they’ll tell you that the arachnids are super creepy. And that might be kinda true, but the fact of the matter is, we need them as much as we need bees: Spiders are the dominant non-vertebrate predators in most exosystems, and without them, insect numbers would skyrocket. Human populations would also be much smaller—or even nonexistent—because the bugs would devour our crops, according to Norman Platnick, Curator Emeritus of the Division of Invertebrate Zoology at the American Museum of Natural History, and curator of Spiders Alive!, which opens tomorrow at the museum.

“It is a fact of reality that some of our visitors are likely to arrive with some fear of spiders, and I can understand that, to an extent,” he says. “I personally am afraid of snakes. But I regard that as a rational fear—about half of the snakes on this planet can actually hurt you. Being afraid of spiders is not rational in that sense. And so we hope to show why such arachnophobia is basically irrational, and that spiders are actually handsome, fascinating creatures that are extremely beneficial to humans.”

Platnick also hopes that visitors to the exhibition will come away with the knowledge that the study of spider diversity is an active field, with much to still be discovered. “Arachnologists have identified almost 45,000 different kinds of spiders at this point,” he says, “[but] that probably represents, at most, about half of the actual diversity of the group, and the numbers are growing very very quickly.”

Spiders Alive! showcases 16 spider species (plus two scorpions and a vinegaroon!) and features live demonstrations and a model of a trap door spider that's 50 times life size—and you can climb on it! Here are a few things we learned from an early visit.

1. Brown recluse venom destroys human tissue, but it has very little effect on rats and mice. Rabbits, meanwhile, are super sensitive: They can develop a wound from as little as 15 micrograms of venom.

2. Spider fossils are hard to find because the animals’ exoskeletons are relatively soft. For every 1000 insect fossils discovered, there’s only one spider.

3. We think of spiders as solitary creatures, but some 20 species work together to survive—including the African funnel-web spider, which shares its web with hundreds of its brethren.

4. This trick is not for the arachnophobic: If you’re walking around at night and want to find any wolf spiders that might be around, use a flashlight—their eyes will reflect the light back at you, like a less cute cat.

5. Tarantulas get their common name from an illness that swept through Taranto, Italy, in medieval times; people thought the illness was caused by the bite of a large-but-harmless spider. To be cured, the afflicted would do a dance called “tarantella” until they were completely exhausted. That poor spider became so well-known that when people settled in the New World, they called any large, hairy spider they came across a tarantula.

Photo by Erin McCarthy

6. Many tarantulas in North and South America defend themselves by using their hind legs to kick off the urticating hairs on their abdomens. The hairs are sharp and irritating, and become embedded in a predator’s skin, eyes, and respiratory tract, hopefully giving the spider time to get away. How can you tell if a tarantula has been using its hairs? Look for a tell-tale bald spot on its abdomen.

7. Despite its name, the Goliath bird eater only rarely eats birds! Instead, this spider—one of the biggest in the world—more often dines on snakes, mice, and frogs.

8. Not all spiders build webs, but all spiders make silk; it emerges from flexible spinnerets, which can be lifted, lowered, and twisted and, in some cases, moved independently, allowing the spider to direct the flow of the silk without moving its whole body. Some use silk to protect their eggs, sail through the air, or get a mate; one species, Argyroneta aquatica, even uses it to survive underwater! The spider builds a dome-shaped web with its silk and stores air bubbles there that it has collected on trips to the surface. It can stay underwater for as long as a day before having to return to the surface.

9. We’ve used spider silk for some pretty incredible things: In the 1800s, travelers saw Solomon Islanders using fishnets made of the material, and in 1943, the U.S. Army used silk from the black widow spider to make crosshairs on sighting devices. More recently, scientists used spider silk as a scaffold for growing human skin cells.

10. Orb webs have three parts: the frame, or foundation, which is the first thing a spider builds; the radii, which come out from the center like the spokes of a bicycle and transmit vibrations from prey; and the catching spiral, the sticky part of the web, which can stretch without breaking, making it hard for insects to escape. Some spiders take their webs down often—even daily!

11. Charlotte A. Cavatica from Charlotte’s Web is named after a common orb weaver, Araneus cavaticus. White consulted an expert at AMNH for help when researching the book.

Photo by Erin McCarthy

12. With well over 1 million specimens, AMNH has the largest research collection of spiders in the world. Unlike insects, which are typically pinned, the arachnids are stored in alcohol so they don’t dry out, which would render the specimens useless.


Disturb one of these arachnids, and they'll shoot a foul smelling spray at you from their abdomens. Don't say we didn't warn you!

All photos courtesy of AMNH unless otherwise noted.

Elusive Butterfly Sighted in Scotland for the First Time in 133 Years

Conditions weren’t looking too promising for the white-letter hairstreak, an elusive butterfly that’s native to the UK. Threatened by habitat loss, the butterfly's numbers have dwindled by 96 percent since the 1970s, and the insect hasn’t even been spotted in Scotland since 1884. So you can imagine the surprise lepidopterists felt when a white-letter hairstreak was seen feeding in a field in Berwickshire, Scotland earlier in August, according to The Guardian.

A man named Iain Cowe noticed the butterfly and managed to capture it on camera. “It is not every day that something as special as this is found when out and about on a regular butterfly foray,” Cowe said in a statement provided by the UK's Butterfly Conservation. “It was a very ragged and worn individual found feeding on ragwort in the grassy edge of an arable field.”

The white-letter hairstreak is a small brown butterfly with a white “W”-shaped streak on the underside of its wings and a small orange spot on its hindwings. It’s not easily sighted, as it tends to spend most of its life feeding and breeding in treetops.

The butterfly’s preferred habitat is the elm tree, but an outbreak of Dutch elm disease—first noted the 1970s—forced the white-letter hairstreak to find new homes and food sources as millions of Britain's elm trees died. The threatened species has slowly spread north, and experts are now hopeful that Scotland could be a good home for the insect. (Dutch elm disease does exist in Scotland, but the nation also has a good amount of disease-resistant Wych elms.)

If a breeding colony is confirmed, the white-letter hairstreak will bump Scotland’s number of butterfly species that live and breed in the country up to 34. “We don’t have many butterfly species in Scotland so one more is very nice to have,” Paul Kirkland, director of Butterfly Conservation Scotland, said in a statement.

Prior to 1884, the only confirmed sighting of a white-letter hairstreak in Scotland was in 1859. However, the insect’s newfound presence in Scotland comes at a cost: The UK’s butterflies are moving north due to climate change, and the white-letter hairstreak’s arrival is “almost certainly due to the warming climate,” Kirkland said.

[h/t The Guardian]

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Plagued with Rodents, Members of the UK Parliament Demand a Cat
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Members of the United Kingdom’s Parliament want a cat, but not just for office cuddles: As The Telegraph reports, the Palace of Westminster—the meeting place of Parliament’s two houses, the House of Commons and the House of Lords—is overrun with vermin, and officials have had enough. They think an in-house feline would keep the rodents at bay and defray skyrocketing pest control costs.

Taxpayers in the UK recently had to bear the brunt of a $167,000 pest control bill after palace maintenance projects and office renovations disturbed mice and moths from their slumber. The bill—which was nearly one-third higher than the previous year’s—covered the cost of a full-time pest control technician and 1700 bait stations. That said, some Members of Parliament (MPs) think their problem could be solved the old-fashioned way: by deploying a talented mouser.

MP Penny Mordaunt tried taking matters into her own hands by bringing four cats—including her own pet kitty, Titania—to work. (“A great believer in credible deterrence, I’m applying the principle to the lower ministerial corridor mouse problem,” she tweeted.) This solution didn’t last long, however, as health and safety officials banned the cats from Parliament.

While cats aren’t allowed in Parliament, other government offices reportedly have in-house felines. And now, MPs—who are sick of mice getting into their food, running across desks, and scurrying around in the tearoom—are petitioning for the same luxury.

"This is so UNFAIR,” MP Stella Creasy said recently, according to The Telegraph. “When does Parliament get its own cats? We’ve got loads of mice (and some rats!) after all!" Plus, Creasy points out, a cat in Parliament is “YouTube gold in waiting!"

Animal charity Battersea Dogs & Cats Home wants to help, and says it’s been trying to convince Parliament to adopt a cat since 2014. "Battersea has over 130 years [experience] in re-homing rescue cats, and was the first choice for Downing Street, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and the Cabinet Office when they sought our mousers to help with their own rogue rodents,” charity head Lindsey Quinlan said in a statement quoted by The Telegraph. “We'd be more than happy to help the Houses of Parliament recruit their own chief mousers to eliminate their pest problem and restore order in the historic corridors of power."

As of now, only assistance and security dogs are allowed on palace premises—but considering that MPs spotted 217 mice alone in the first six months of 2017 alone, top brass may have to reconsider their rules and give elected officials purr-mission to get their own feline office companions.

[h/t The Telegraph]


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