Of Spiders and Men: Myths and Mysteries of Arachnids

"MC Siedleragame" by Christian Mehlführer, User:Chmehl - Own work. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.

Courtesy of Wikipedia via Christian Mehlführer

There’s been a lot of talk of the new Spider-Man movie which is reported to be released in the next two years. Most of us are familiar with the ‘Spiderman’Agama (Agama mwanze) with its red and blue coloration might have inspired Steve Ditko to create the costume for Peter Parker and the Marvel Comic universe. More likely it was it was inspired by a Mardi Gras costume or something similar he may have seen. There’s a lot of controversy regarding the creative relationship of Ditko and Lee. Regardless of who created Spider-Man, Marvel Comics as a company has one of the most recognizable American icons. Myself, I’m leaning towards Ditko recognizing what’s long been considered the American Icon of comics Superman with his blue onesie and red cape. It’s not a hard stretch of imagination to recognize the coincidence when Superman was created in 1938 and thirty years later Spider-Man swings onto the newsstands. That’s just being a great artist

‘Good artists copy, great artists steal.’ Pablo Picasso

Of Spiders and Reptiles

Spiders or arachnids as they’re known in science are in themselves incredible ‘exotic’ pets for many people involved in herpetoculture. Many of the ‘old-timers’ of herpetoculture are of the belief spiders and any other invertebrate for that matter shouldn’t be included in the realm of ‘herpetoculture’. This is for the reason that arachnids aren’t reptiles at all. Many would and do feel the same way about amphibians. Zoologically speaking they’re right amphibians and invertebrates aren’t reptiles. You just cannot argue it, well you can but you’d be proven wrong.

So what’s with herpetoculture and keeping arachnids? I don’t think anyone has traced the lineage as it were of when herpetoculturists began adding spiders to their collections. As long as I’ve been keeping reptiles over a decade now spiders and more specifically Tarantulas have been a part of herpetoculture. I would think this was because the Tarantulas were/are found within the same areas as the reptiles being collected for export. These of course were of interest to some of the collectors and were brought in as well. These were then kept and studied by reptile keepers around the globe.

Spiders and Pop Culture

Spiders have been part of pop culture probably since Mother Goose. Miss Muffet is one of the most recognizable nursery rhymes. Mother Goose whomever she was has not ever been truly identified. Her works traced back by some to the seventeenth century, while others place her tales in the tenth century and being the wife of King Robert II. Charles Perrault is the first documented publisher of Mother Goose rhymes and tales in 1697.

Arachnophobia is in my estimation an irrational fear, as is ophidophobia (the fear of snakes) interpreted as a threat because they’ve got more limbs than us. This fact alone, is one most often cited when it comes fears of most animals. When we’re able to identify with a species as limited as our capability might be we feel more comfortable. In other words, animals with four limbs be they legs as in our domestic pets cats, dogs, even horses are dissimilar from us in every way. Being a quadruped however makes the identification and or empathic regions in our brains to convince these are the normal because although we walk upright we still have four appendages. Take those away or add more and it becomes for some reason unnatural to us. Maybe this is exactly what attracts us to both snakes and spiders. Add in the mass media coverage with their twists and turns of story and the cinema preying on our fears it’s easy to see why there’s some animosity towards our eight legged friends.

Keeping Spiders
Why keep spiders as a pet at all is another question I’m often asked. While I’ve kept a few Tarantulas myself over the years. It was for the most part to educate the public and assist them in overcoming their fears of the maligned and what some consider terrifying animal. Tarantulas are not the only arachnids kept in herpetoculture.
True Spiders or Araneomorphs as they’re known are your ‘typical’ garden variety spider from the Wolf Spider to the Black Widow. Speaking of Wolf Spiders there’s a species (Lycosa tarantula) found near Taranto Italy where it was believed responsible for Tarantism a dancing mania or malady of medieval Europe.

Could this be where the Mother Goose story of Little Miss Muffet originated? I wouldn’t say I’m arachnophobic by any means, however we’ve all been the proverbial Ninja when walking in dim light a spider web touches our face. I myself become the dancing king with moves like spastic Jell-O (apologies Bill Cosby) when an unknown arachnid crawls on me and I’m not expecting it. I may have also been known to ‘scream like a banshee’ when a Solfugid wanted to get away and moved towards me on a desert highway. (Tip of the hat to my son Austin for that memory)

Spider Facts and Fiction

There’s a lot of misinformation concerning spiders and what they’re truly capable of both in the wild and in the vivarium. The most often retold and believed myth is

“Daddy Long Leg Spiders are the most venomous species of spider but their fangs are too short to puncture human skin.”

The very first thing to understand is the name Daddy Long Legs is applied to any number of spiders which have long legs. In truth, Daddy Long Legs aren’t even spiders at all. They belong to an order known as Opiliones we can identify the difference (for those brave enough) by looking closely at the body. Is the body one piece or two? If it’s one piece without a definitive separation of head and thorax it might be a Daddy Long Legs. Daddy Long Legs as they are called also completely lack venom glands.

Avicularia versicolor courtesy of Inverts Unlimited

Avicularia versicolor courtesy of Inverts Unlimited

Tarantulas prey on birds, specifically the Goliath Bird Eater (Theraphosa blondi). This was no doubt learned when Swiss naturalist named Maria Sibylla Merian visited Suriname in 1705. Upon returning home she revealed her painting of what would be described as the Avicularia genus eating a hummingbird.
Imagine if you will, up until this very moment you knew spiders as small diminutive creatures easily stomped. Now you’re staring at a painting from someone who’s been to the New World and there’s the largest arachnid you’ve ever seen! Did I mention it was eating a bird? Talk about a shocking discovery.

While it’s true Tarantulas will eat just about anything they can subdue. I think it more probable after viewing the painting; the hummingbird was caught in the night unaware sitting on her eggs. Regardless of how it came to pass, it’s accepted today, Tarantulas don’t leap from trees to subdue birds in flight. I’ve heard it said they’ll take hatchling birds from an unguarded nest. This would be much more reasonable than a Goliath Bird Eater (Theraphosa blondi) snatching a bird mid-flight.

I’m not saying it couldn’t happen, just it’s unlikely in my estimation. With that said, it’s widely accepted the (Pterinochilus murinus) Orange Baboon Tarantula is one of the most defensive tarantulas you can keep. I say ‘defensive’ because in my experience there’s never been a tarantula or any other spider that’s actively going after a human. If approached some tarantulas will defend themselves and do so with amazing speed and accuracy. If you want to start keeping tarantulas as pets check out further reading in our Arachnids section.