10 Creepy-Crawly Facts About Spiders

iStock/pong6400
iStock/pong6400

You don’t have to love ‘em, but there’s no denying that we’d all be a lot worse off without the ecological benefits spiders provide. Join us as we clear up some misconceptions—and revel in some wild facts—about these wonderful arachnids.

1. Spiders can be found nearly everywhere—even on Mount Everest.

It’s a myth that you’re never more than 3 feet from a spider, but they sure are abundant. Scientists recognize over 48,000 different species, distributed across every continent besides Antarctica. Spiders live in all sorts of habitats, from deserts to jungles to wetlands. They even live on some of the world's highest mountains. The tiny Himalayan jumping spider lives at elevations of up to almost 22,000 feet above sea level, and has been found on the slopes of Mount Everest. Meanwhile, the Andes Mountains are populated by high-climbing tarantulas. Seven new species were recently found there, including a skillful burrower that was seen at altitudes above 14,700 feet.

2. The world’s spiders consume millions of tons of insects each year.

According to one 2017 study, the average square meter of land contains roughly 131 spiders. Using relative body sizes and food habits, the study’s authors estimated that “the global spider community” eats a collective 400 to 800 million tons of food—including insects and small vertebrates—per year.

3. Not all spider webs are considered cobwebs.

A spiderweb with dew on it
iStock/vonviper

A cobweb is a specific type of spider web that’s defined by its disheveled appearance. Some webs are well-organized, spiral-like structures made with ring after ring of concentric circles. By contrast, cobwebs don’t really follow any recognizable pattern, per se. They’re tangled, sprawling things made by the aptly named “cobweb spiders” of the Theridiidae family. (Black widows belong to said group.)

4. Some spiders turn their webs into slingshots …

Using its own body like a catapult to create tension between the lines in its web, the Peruvian triangle weaver spider launches itself towards hapless insects. After it springs forward, the arachnid accelerates like crazy. In the span of just one second, the critter’s speed can increase by the equivalent of 1700 miles per hour. During the process, the oscillating web enmeshes the victim, increasing the odds of a kill without requiring the spider to get too close to potentially dangerous prey.

5. … And some like to go ballooning.

A ballooning spider
A ballooning spider near B.K. Leach Memorial Conservation Area in Missouri
Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Ballooning is a popular travel strategy among young spiderlings and small-bodied adults. The technique is simple: A wayward arachnid uses silk strands to catch the wind and ride its currents over vast distances. (Frequent fliers may also be taking advantage of earth’s electromagnetic fields [PDF].) In southeastern Australia, mass migrations of hang gliding spider babies are a common sight. Sometimes, it looks as though the sky is raining spiders.

6. The giant huntsman spider is the size of a dinner plate.

First discovered in Laos in 2001, the giant huntsman spider doesn’t build webs; instead, like other huntsman spider species, it actively tracks down the insects it dines upon. From leg tip to leg tip, the giant huntsman measures 12 inches across, giving it the longest leg span of any modern spider. So does that make it the world’s biggest spider overall? Well, that depends on what measurement you’re using. For all its leggy prowess, the giant huntsman is outweighed by the Goliath birdeater tarantula, a 6-ounce juggernaut thought to be the heaviest spider alive today. But while the tarantula is beefier, it’s got a slightly smaller leg span.

7. Male nursery web spiders trade gifts for sex.

A nursery web spider crawls across a leaf.
iStock/Chris_Soucy

Male nursery web spiders (Pisaura mirabilis) approach potential mates with dead insects “gift-wrapped” in silk. That wrapping material is loaded with male pheromones, but female spiders seem to be totally unphased by the amorous chemicals, according to a March 2018 study. Instead, they focus on the food itself. Approaching females empty-handed is a risky proposition: Males who fail to offer gifts are six times more likely to get eaten by their would-be mating partners.

8. “Sea spiders” aren't really spiders.

A sea spider
iStock/RibeirodosSantos

Not every so-called "spider" is an arachnid. Despite their common name, sea spiders aren’t considered true spiders; they belong to a different class called Pycnogonida. Found in every ocean, the spineless creatures suck up food through a hose-like apparatus and crawl around on eight to 12 segmented legs. The biggest species have incredible leg spans of over 28 inches. Just how they might relate to the spider family tree is unclear, though—because the delicate animals are rarely preserved as fossils, scientists aren't quite sure of their origins [PDF]. While some research suggests that they are chelicerates, belonging to the same subphylum as spiders and horseshoe crabs, others believe they may have evolved separately.

9. Indoor plumbing may have led to a decrease in black widow bites.

Black widows (genus Latrodectus) are among the world’s most feared invertebrates, with North America’s three resident species being especially notorious. Their neurotoxic venom can be fatal to humans, so be sure to give the spiders a wide berth. Yet, your chances of being bitten by one are fairly low. Most black widows prefer to hide rather than bite. And even when they do bite, the spiders sometimes withhold their venom, which is better spent on prey than humans.

During the 20th century, the number of reported black widow bites (as well as fatalities) in America significantly declined. We may in part have our changing bathroom habits to thank for that development. Outhouses are ideal spider shelters, but now that indoor plumbing is here to stay, you don’t see many backyard toilet shacks anymore. Experts think the decline of outhouses led to fewer encounters between widow spiders (including black widows and their relatives, brown widows) and people—and thus fewer bites. And though people do still occasionally get bitten, modern medical advancements have made fatalities very rare.

10. The longest-lived spider on record died at age 43.

For over four decades, scientists kept tabs on a wild trapdoor spider known simply as “Number Sixteen.” First sighted in 1974, the tiny female—less than an inch in width—defended a home burrow in Western Australia. Her death due to a wasp sting was announced in April, 2018. Prior to Number Sixteen, the oldest individual spider in recorded history was a Mexican tarantula that reached the age of 28.

Hundreds of Kangaroos Roam the Green at This Australian Golf Course

burroblando/iStock via Getty Images
burroblando/iStock via Getty Images

Anglesea Golf Club has all the makings of a regular golf club: an 18-hole golf course, a mini golf course, a driving range, a clubhouse, and a bistro. But the kangaroo mobs that hop around the holes add an element of surprise to your otherwise leisurely round of one of the slowest games in sports.

Person takes photo of a kangaroo
Anglesea Golf Club

According to Thrillist, the kangaroos have been a mainstay for years, and the club started giving tours a few years ago to ensure visitors could observe them in the safest way possible. For about 25 minutes, a volunteer tour guide will drive a golf cart with up to 14 passengers around the course, sharing fun facts about kangaroos and stopping at opportune locations for people to snap a few photos of the marsupials, which are most active in late afternoon and early morning. Kangaroos are friendly creatures, but Anglesea’s website reminds visitors that “they can also be quite aggressive if they feel threatened.”

Post-graduate students and academic staff from Melbourne University’s zoology department have been researching Anglesea’s kangaroo population since 2004, and some of the animals are marked with collar and ear tags so the researchers can track movement, growth, survival, and reproduction patterns throughout their life cycle.

One of the reasons kangaroos have continued to dwell on land so highly trafficked by people is because of the quality of the land itself, National Geographic reports. The golf course staff regularly sprinkles nitrogen fertilizer all over the green, which makes the grass especially healthy.

Kangaroos graze on Anglesea Golf Course
Anglesea Golf Club

If you decide to plan a trip to Anglesea Golf Club, you can book a kangaroo tour here—adult tickets are $8.50, and children under 12 can come along for just $3.50 each.

[h/t Thrillist]

10 Surprising Facts About Shoebill Storks

MikeLane45/iStock via Getty Images
MikeLane45/iStock via Getty Images

Shoebill storks have been called the world’s most terrifying bird (though the cassowary might disagree). These stately wading birds stalk the marshes of South Sudan, Uganda, and elsewhere in tropical East Africa, snatching up prey with their unique, immediately recognizable bills. But there are a lot of misconceptions about shoebill storks—the first being that they're not actually storks. Here are some more surprising facts.

1. Shoebill storks could win staring contests.

Shoebills live in the vast wetlands of the Nile watershed in eastern Africa. You really can’t mistake them for any other bird: They grow 4 to 5 feet tall, have bluish-gray plumage and an 8-plus-foot wingspan, and their bill, which takes up a majority of their face, looks like a huge Dutch wooden clog. Shoebills can stand virtually motionless for hours with their bills held down against their necks. Complemented by their golden eyes, the posture affects a very convincing death stare.

2. Shoebills may be more closely related to pelicans than storks.

Shoebill stork looking at the camera
ApuuliWorld/iStock via Getty Images

Over the past couple of centuries, naturalists have debated where shoebills should appear on the Tree of Life. Some taxonomists said that the shoebill's syrinx, or vocal organ, resembled those of herons belonging to the family Pelecaniformes, which also includes ibises, pelicans, and boobies. Others countered that herons have specialized feathers than release a powdery down to help with preening, but shoebills didn’t have these feathers, so they must be storks belonging to the family Ciconiiformes. “There is, in fact, not the shadow of a doubt that it is either a heron or a stork; but the question is, which?” zoologist Frank Evers Beddard wrote in 1905. More recent studies on the shoebill's eggshell structure and DNA have supported its place among the Pelecaniformes.

3. Shoebills poop on themselves.

Shoebills practice urohydrosis, the effective—if revolting—habit of defecating on their legs to lower their body temperature. In fact, this characteristic confused taxonomists: In the past, some felt that the shoebill’s habit placed it within the family of true storks, since all true storks also use their own droppings to cool off.

4. European naturalists were introduced to shoebills in the 1840s.

Shoebill stork
neil bowman/iStock via Getty Images

A German diplomat and explorer named Ferdinand Werne was the first European to hear about the shoebill. On his expedition in Africa to find the source of the White Nile in 1840, Werne camped at Lake No, part of a 12,000-square-mile wetland called the Sudd in what is now South Sudan. Werne’s indigenous guides told him “that they had seen an extraordinary bird, as big as a big camel, with a bill like a pelican’s, though wanting a pouch,” according to a 1908 edition of The Avicultural Magazine.

About 10 years later, a collector named Mansfield Parkyns brought two shoebill skins to England, giving British zoologists their first look at the weird bird. At an 1851 meeting of the British Zoological Society, naturalist John Gould presented a description of the shoebill based on Parkyns’s specimens and gave it the scientific name Balaeniceps rex.

5. Shoebills are also called whale-headed storks.

Balaeniceps rex means “whale-head king,” evidently a reference to its bill shape resembling the head of a baleen whale (as well as a shoe). Other names for the shoebill include the boat-bill, bog-bird, lesser lechwe-eater (referring to the shoebill’s alleged taste for lechwe, or aquatic antelope), and abu markub, or “father of a slipper” in Arabic.

6. Shoebills love lungfish.

Yum, lungfish! These air-breathing, eel-like fish grow to more than 6 feet long and comprise the shoebill’s favorite food. Shoebills also chow down on actual eels, catfish, lizards, snakes, and baby crocodiles. To catch their prey, shoebills stand still in the water and wait for an unsuspecting fish to appear. Then, the bird swiftly “collapses” on its target, spreading its wings and diving down bill-first to ambush the fish. Then, with the fish in its mouth, it decapitates it by grinding the sharp edges of its bill together.

7. Shoebills really earned their fierce reputation.

Victorian photographers learned the hard way that shoebills could be as mean as they looked. “The shoebill is capable of inflicting a very powerful bite,” 19th-century zoologist Stanley S. Flower wrote, “and is by no means a safe bird for a stranger ignorant of its ways to approach, a fact which we often have to impress on amateur photographers anxious to obtain ‘snap-shots’ of Balaeniceps at close quarters. It has been amusing to see how rapidly in some cases their enthusiasm has waned, when (as requested) confronted with the great bird screaming shrill defiance and crouching as if were about to spring, with gaping bill and half-spread wings.”

8. Shoebills have always been a rare curiosity at zoos.

Shoebill stork with its mouth open
neil bowman/iStock via Getty Images

In the 19th century, the Sudanese government made the shoebill a protected species, but that did not stop collectors from attempting to transport shoebills to zoos. Flower, then director of the Zoological Gardens in Giza, Egypt, brought three shoebills (along with four giraffes, nine antelopes, a lion, a leopard, three servals, two ostriches, two porcupines, an aardvark, five tortoises, a crocodile, and several other animals) on a train north from Khartoum to the gardens. The temperature rose to 118°F and the irritated shoebills barfed up their dinners. Their diet of fresh fish that Flower had ordered never materialized, so he resorted to feeding the birds canned shrimp. Miraculously, the birds arrived at the Zoological Gardens in one piece and survived in captivity for at least five years. Today, only a handful of zoos open to the public have shoebills, including the Prague Zoo in the Czech Republic, Pairi Daiza in Belgium, the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, and the Dallas World Aquarium.

9. Shoebills are worth thousands of dollars on the black market.

Shoebills rarely breed in captivity: In the last hundred years at least, only two chicks have hatched. In today’s zoos, all shoebills were either born there or were legally collected from the wild. Unfortunately, their scarcity and mystique have also made shoebills a sought-after bird for poachers in the illegal wildlife trade. According to Audubon magazine, private collectors in Dubai and Saudi Arabia will pay $10,000 or more for a live shoebill.

10. Shoebills are at risk of extinction.

The IUCN Redlist estimates between 3300 and 5300 mature shoebills live in the world today, and that number is decreasing. The iconic birds are threatened by a number of anthropogenic forces, including loss of their marshland habitat from farming, livestock ranching, oil and gas exploration, fires, pollution, and more. International wildlife groups and local conservationists are monitoring shoebill habitats in South Sudan, Uganda, Tanzania, and Zambia and patrolling the sites for poaching, but much more attention is needed to protect shoebills.

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