Do spiders send shivers down your spine, or do they pique your curiosity? An exhibition in New York will teach you lots about these creatures.
The American Museum of Natural History exhibit about arachnids is called Spiders Alive!
The exclamation is with good reason, since the spiders really are alive. They're 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 that look like they could be splashed across the title sequence of a B-movie from the 1950s: 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 about them that makes our skin crawl.
Even the name "tarantula" 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 that lived locally. Whenever a resident was bitten by the spider, they 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 and looking to name the creatures, they recalled the dance of Taranto. The irony is that tarantulas pose virtually no threat to humans because – counterintuitive as it might sound – bigger spiders tend to have less-powerful venom.
In fact, although most spiders produce venom, fewer than 1% are dangerous to humans. That's just 200 species out of more than 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.
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 a common phobia. 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 toward 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 World War II, the U.S. Army used black widow silk to make crosshairs for sighting devices on its weaponry. And in 2010, scientists identified a spider silk, from the caerostris darwini species on Madagascar, that is 10 times tougher than Kevlar.
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 was kids.
“How did you get to work with spiders?” one 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.”
That's easier said than done for a lot of us.
Spiders Alive! runs through December 2.