September 14th, 2012
08:00 AM ET

Spiders: Creepy but fascinating

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).

CDC: Venomous spiders

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.

soundoff (60 Responses)
  1. Anne

    Awesome! You caught it. Normally,it will only acttak if it knows you are going to harm or kill it,otherwise it can be your "friend". Just happened to read your web after reading your meditation book. Hello Ajahn.

    October 11, 2012 at 4:50 am |
  2. clifford f barrett

    Scary, creepy, fascinating and necessary! With more education on them – a little less scary & maybe a little more beautiful.

    October 2, 2012 at 3:34 am |
  3. Awesomeness

    I HATE spiders. This pic is creepy

    September 20, 2012 at 12:23 pm |
  4. $tillRun!

    808 state...gotta give a shot out to the Cane spider.

    September 19, 2012 at 10:13 am |
  5. bebow


    September 15, 2012 at 6:34 am |
  6. papadick

    dimorphic does not mean "the female is larger than the male". it simply means "of two shapes".

    September 15, 2012 at 4:29 am |
  7. David

    One of the guitar players from Slayer was bitten in the arm by some kind of spider and almost had to have his arm amputated. He had to be replaced in the band for now.

    September 15, 2012 at 12:48 am |
  8. tdxon

    Here in Southern California, black widows are very common. One evening last week, I took a flashlight and went around my house in Pasadena, and counted 32 black widows. Maybe only 5-6 were females. I also noticed fewer than a dozen non-widow spiders. Widows are very easy to spot at night. They build the most un-symetrical, disorganized web you've ever seen, usually between the ground and a vertical surface close to the ground. The orange/red hourglass is easily seen. When I first moved here, I used to always kill them. But I've since come to realize that they only come out at night and they're always right there on their web. They don't bother me, I don't bother them. If they are in my way, a gentle nudge and they're gone. They do their part by keeping the flying insect population down. Still, if I found one inside the house, I'd have a hard time NOT squishing it.

    September 15, 2012 at 12:23 am |
    • works4me

      It must have been a Saturday night. That's when all of the female Black Widows come out in Cali.

      September 15, 2012 at 6:29 am |
  9. Groo

    If spiders freak you out, try house centipedes. Those things are one of the weirdest bugs I've ever seen. The first time I saw one I didn't even know what it was because I'd never seen anything like it. I found out they live in houses and eat spiders as their main diet. They also have a painful bite but tend to never bother people, they're just hunting, also they live to be 5 to 7 years old so for many people seeing these in their houses chances are they've been resident there at least as long as you have.

    September 14, 2012 at 11:58 pm |
  10. Betty

    , one Fear Factor episode contestants put their head in a clear acrylic box with goggles and they poured 15 taranchelas on thei head for as long as they could stand it. I was never so freaked out in my life!

    September 14, 2012 at 11:36 pm |
  11. Betty

    Are you flipped nuts, no amount of money would make me pick one up not even for 10 seconds, one Fear Factor episode contestants put their head in a clear acrylic box with goggles and they poured 15 taranchelas on thei head for as long as they could stand it. I was never so freaked out in my life!

    September 14, 2012 at 11:35 pm |
  12. Pinebelt Bob

    Still taking antibiotics from a bite from over 2 weeks ago. The large infection is now down to a small scab. Used to leave them alone, but now it is smash city.

    September 14, 2012 at 11:16 pm |
    • sweepster

      Really ??? The guy I work with got bitten and had to have his toe amputated. I can assure you antibiotics were tried prior to the amputation. The venom attacked the tissue, and caused a massive infection. So they did treat a spider bite with antibiotics. Split hairs if you want to prove your knowledge and superiority.

      September 15, 2012 at 5:38 am |
  13. OKC

    In Oklahoma this summer, we had a bumper crop of Black Widows. I despise those things. I killed five in one week! However, I love Argiope Aurantia (garden spiders). We feed them and they're our outdoor pets. Tarantulas are fascinating. They all went on the march across my mom's yard this summer. There were at least 15 of them there all at once. Creepy, but so interesting!

    September 14, 2012 at 10:54 pm |
  14. spiderwoman

    found a tarantula in my pool, my husband place it in a jar..and we drove a few blocks down the street and release the spider. They are beautiful and so graceful...but watch out they jump. When you leave in a desert, you become inmune to every creepy crawler...excpect the Camel Spider, that one freaks me out

    September 14, 2012 at 10:45 pm |
  15. jwtsbsf

    While visiting NYC last month I spent two wonderful, interesting hours at the Spiders Alive! exhibit. Really fun, informative, and brought this 49 year old man back to his childhood love of spiders. I still find spiders fascinating and cool–good article and fun pics, too!

    September 14, 2012 at 9:49 pm |
  16. hannah1


    September 14, 2012 at 9:32 pm |
    • Paganguy

      Bugs have 6 legs, Spiders have 8 legs.

      September 15, 2012 at 1:52 am |
    • Robot Monster

      Net Correspondent: It's an ugly planet. A BUG planet! A planet hostile to life-
      [Reporter is attacked and maimed by an arachnid]

      September 15, 2012 at 6:08 am |
    • Awesomeness

      I agree 100%

      September 20, 2012 at 12:24 pm |
  17. Kevin

    Spiders are always welcome in my home as long as they aren't the Brown Recluse variety.

    September 14, 2012 at 9:20 pm |
  18. Draxta

    Spiders are our friends.

    September 14, 2012 at 9:07 pm |
  19. Yeeeeks

    I think all life is precious,even thiers,but they just scare me.So I just leave them alone.Seams to work for the both of us.

    September 14, 2012 at 8:49 pm |
  20. Grell Suttecliff

    Did you know, for example, that spiders have been on Earth for 300 million years? Unless you're a young creationist, in which case spiders have only been on the earth for 6,000 years max, lol.

    September 14, 2012 at 6:51 pm |
    • Mike Krotch

      HERP! DERP! Wow, you really gave us all a funny zinger!

      September 14, 2012 at 8:06 pm |
  21. cpc65

    This guy I used to work with kept exotic pets at home including a bunch of spiders. He bought in a rose tarantula once. They have a red to pinkish tint to them. He even got a girl who also worked there and had arachnophobia to hold it briefly.

    September 14, 2012 at 6:38 pm |
    • Grell Suttecliff

      I was there that day! It bit her, and she died on the spot!

      September 14, 2012 at 6:53 pm |
  22. Patrick Horan

    We have had a good sized garden spider take up residency outside our front window, so all summer we have been able to sit and watch him/her go about his/ her spider activities. It really is quite amazing all the work they put in! From constantly repairing their web, to how incredibly fast they wrap up their "catches". He/she will run to whatever has been caught, wrap it with the speed of light, repair any damage to his/her web, and then he/she slowly backs into the center of the web. My wife and i have really learned alot by watching him/her..and believe it or not, she (wife) isnt as frightened by them as she used to be just by watching him/her thru the summer.

    September 14, 2012 at 6:14 pm |
    • Grell Suttecliff

      When I was a boy, there were lots of big garden spiders in iowa. We used to feed other bugs to them. They're not around anymore, since 20 years ago.

      September 14, 2012 at 6:54 pm |
    • Mike

      Yes , it would be nice if people worked as hard as these spiders.

      September 14, 2012 at 6:58 pm |
  23. Patrick Horan

    LMAO Wheels...just dont let them flank ya!!

    September 14, 2012 at 6:03 pm |
  24. Skeptimist

    One year when I was a kid we destroyed all the wasp nests in our area. Next season we were covered in spiders. My science teacher explained wasps control the spider population by feeding them to their young. Lesson: leave wild creatures alone as long as they don't threaten you in your home. Also, treat all snakes and insects as venomous – unless you are an expert, you and they are better off if you leave them alone. I understand that even feeding wild birds on a regular basis can be disruptive if you miss a week or two when you go on vacation.

    September 14, 2012 at 5:58 pm |
  25. wheels

    I had a pact with the spiders in my basment, they dont bite me when i sleep, and i dont kill them....they broke the pact now its war

    September 14, 2012 at 5:38 pm |
    • thierry

      the phlocids bit you? cellar spiders are harmless. they dont wander about. they look for a cool place to make a web. they are messy though. basement can be full of them.

      September 14, 2012 at 6:17 pm |
  26. J Smith

    I've overcome my tendency to swat spiders and can now let them be. Currently I'm working on centipede-ophobia and making progress – at least I don't move all the furniture trying to spray half a can of Black Flag on them.

    September 14, 2012 at 4:47 pm |
    • ironsheik

      That sounds like real progress, lol! Keep up the good work. You'll be encouraging them to crawl all over your face before you know it.

      September 14, 2012 at 4:52 pm |
    • thierry

      that stuff is highly toxic. be careful. just use a plant based repellant

      September 14, 2012 at 6:12 pm |
  27. ironsheik

    MB, she is referring to the larger species of spiders as having less potent venom. As someone who has owned over 50 tarantulas and true spiders at one point I know a bit about the subject. I've never understood arachnophobia. When my daughter was as young as 4 I let her handle tarantulas (supervised, more for the safety of the critters). Spiders are not aggressive, they are defensive. If you threaten them they will defend themselves. They're not ever going to pursue and attack you.

    September 14, 2012 at 3:15 pm |
    • ironsheik

      I should, however, mention that larger spiders having more potent venom is a generalization. It is usually the case with new world species but old world species (primarily Asian and African) can be large and pack quite the punch. Ask anyone who has been tagged by a big female Poecilotheria, you will sing soprano.

      September 14, 2012 at 3:25 pm |
    • blurr87

      Never heard of an Australian Funnel Web Spider I suppose.

      September 15, 2012 at 1:29 am |
      • ironsheik

        blurr, I'm familiar with Australian funnel spiders. The perfect pet, lol. No, if you want the bad boy on the block check out a Brazilian wandering spider (Phoneutria genus). They're HIGHLY defensive, are considered the most venemous spider ,and, can leave one with a painful 4 hour erection as well.

        September 15, 2012 at 2:31 pm |
  28. rainyday

    The writer missed a tidbit – the frenetic dance by Taranto villagers to try to shake out the poison evolved into the distinct Tarantella folk dance. Just a little bit of research would have helped.

    September 14, 2012 at 2:53 pm |
    • Gdog

      Who cares about a peoples' dance, RainyLady? This short article is about SPIDERS. Complaining about the author's "lack of a little bit of research" is pretty tacky. Did you want to mention your own aborigine tribe and your traditional peepee dance too?

      September 14, 2012 at 3:12 pm |
      • 123elle

        Oh don't be so nasty. She was just trying to share an interesting tidbit and you unloaded on her. Find out what is really bothering you.

        September 14, 2012 at 6:32 pm |
  29. David Bowman

    My god....its full of spiders

    September 14, 2012 at 2:53 pm |
    • HAL

      Well played, Dave.

      September 15, 2012 at 12:25 am |
  30. Beth

    I admit, I am terrified of spiders! Faint terrified! Have a heart attack, terrified! I find them remarkable, but I do not want to touch them or be their friend!

    IF someone told me, if I held a harmless spider for 30 seconds, I could get ten million dollars? Forget it! I'll stay broke! Quit my job? Forget it. I'll keep working! I think, honestly, if someone held a gun to my head and told me hold a spider or die........Bang, bang! LOL!


    September 14, 2012 at 2:47 pm |
    • cwalker

      Beth – I agree – I too will always be broke. But maybe for 10 million dollars I would quickly pick one up and put it back down! Not – i will forever be poor if this is the requirement to make it to the big times.

      September 14, 2012 at 3:18 pm |
    • 123elle

      I recall that one day I entered my bathroom, and a spider spotted me and ran in terror. I must have looked like a huge monster to the little thing. It sort of broke my heart that this blameless creature was fleeing to protect the only life that it had, just as I would from a huge monster. It didn't choose to be a spider, and it meant me no harm. Somehow I felt wrenched with pity. I picked it up with a tissue, scared as I was, and put it outside. They are living things, and not "creepy crawlies" - no matter what we esthetically think of the bodies they were given. They deserve the same empathy that a cute puppy or kitten so easily evokes.

      September 14, 2012 at 6:41 pm |
      • Aletheya

        I commend your compassion. The world would be a better place if more people thought as you do.

        September 14, 2012 at 7:22 pm |
      • Jcod

        I so agree! I have a spider living in my basement now and I just can't bring myself to kill or even disturb it. It must be killing bugs or it wouldn't be there. A creepy pet, I guess.

        September 14, 2012 at 9:26 pm |
      • Paganguy

        I keep a small plastic cup handy for eviction of spiders.

        September 15, 2012 at 2:02 am |
  31. M B

    Did the editing team even notice the obvious contradiction in this article?
    At first, the writer was talking about tarantulas and then mentioned that the bigger spiders have less powerful venom.
    Then, as the writer is talking about black widows, he said that the female is more dangerous since it is larger and has more venom.

    So, does she have more venom that is less powerful which "somehow" makes her more dangerous. Or did the writer mean to state that the bigger SPECIES of spiders have less powerful venom (meaning that the females and males of that species have the same power in their venom per volume).

    September 14, 2012 at 2:39 pm |
    • SDH

      I noticed this too... but too lazy to research it myself. haha.

      September 14, 2012 at 3:26 pm |
    • King Donko

      I noticed that too.

      Bigger species of spiders tend to have less powerful venom, however dimorphic species of spiders (like the Black Widow) tend to have more powerful venom in the females, which will be larger than their male counterparts.

      As an aside, I've seen a few male black widows in my backyard and they are not nearly as imposing as the females.

      September 14, 2012 at 3:40 pm |
    • thefinetruth

      Actually, the author says that larger spiders have less potent venom. Then, the article says that the female black widow has more venom because she is bigger. They are two different distinctions, but you are right in that it seems like a contradiction the way that it is written. But, I assume that the male and female black widow species have the same potency, but the female can do more damage because she carries more venom.

      September 14, 2012 at 6:47 pm |
      • Aletheya

        Exactly so.

        September 14, 2012 at 7:24 pm |
  32. gregladen

    Spiders are great, but in case you need to reduce the number of them in hour home:

    September 14, 2012 at 2:19 pm |


  • Elizabeth Landau
  • Sophia Dengo
    Senior Designer