Spiders in this country get a terrible rap. However, we’ve wrangled the finest mind in the Queensland Museum, Robert Whyte, to explain why we should embrace them.
If you’re afraid of spiders, allow me to introduce you to the Christmas Jewel Spider, vibrantly coloured orange, yellow and black. Put two together and you have a fabulous pair of earrings! The Metallic Spiny Orb-weaver looks like a child’s Transformer toy. There’s a gorgeous blue and orange little fella called Sparklemuffin – who could possibly be frightened by something called a Sparklemuffin?
We spoke to author Robert Whyte, honorary researcher in arachnology at Queensland Museum about Australian spiders and why we should learn to love them.
TBS: Australia is called the “most exciting spider destination in the world”. How many species of spider do we have? Are any found only in Australia?
RW: For scientists and naturalists Australia is an amazing Aladdin’s cave for spiders. Everywhere you look treasures are waiting to be found, from the suburbs to the outback. Spiders are waiting to be discovered in rainforests, deserts, mountains. Locations are accessible, travel is safe, the weather’s beautiful, the people are friendly. It’s an arachnologist’s paradise.
We’re approaching 4,000 species described by scientists but the number of species yet to be discovered is staggering. There could be as many as 20,000 species in total. Several groups have been revised in recent years: most have increased tenfold in the numbers of species.
The vast majority of our spiders, like other Australian flora and fauna, are only found here. This is because Australia has been an island continent for nearly 80 million years, evolving its own unique plants and animals.
There are some seriously stunning photographs in your book. It must be a challenge to find some of the spiders, such as the ones that look like bird poo and are only 5mm long. And the Ogre-faced Net-casting Spider, how do you get a sensational picture like that?
The challenge to find and photograph spiders is addictive. It’s like being a bird watcher but way better. Birds are hard to photograph; the best bird photographers use huge telephoto lenses that weigh a ton and cost a bomb. Spiders are easier. Most just hang there in the webs posing for you. Jumping spiders are inquisitive and turn towards you. There are certainly wish lists of rare and unusual, colourful, weirdly-shaped species, especially in the tropics, just like for birders, but most you can find in your backyard, local parks and bushland. What makes spiders better than birds is how many are unknown. Imagine if someone discovered a new species of bird in Australia. The media would go ballistic. Yet in our recent Bush Blitz trip to Cape York, my colleagues and I discovered over 70 new Australian spider species in only 10 days, including a colourful spider with orange fur on its underarms and a new Peacock Spider.
Unlike big telephoto lenses, macro lenses and magnifiers aren’t expensive and the photos are stunning. It’s a whole new world. You feel like you’re at the frontier of a new field of exploration. It’s fun.
The harder it is to find and photograph, the more fun it is. It’s very rewarding to get the world’s best photo of a spider. Challenging? It’s actually easy, because two out of every three species out there are new and haven’t been photographed before. Of course, common ones outnumber the rare ones, but there are so many beautiful and unusual spiders there’s plenty go around. Night photography is especially seductive exploring a bejewelled wonderland.
The Ogre-faced Net-caster photo was a fluke, actually. It’s a big spider with huge eyes, so you know it’s going to be an amazing photo. But I had only a small Olympus point and shoot at the time, and no lights, so I took the photo in the sunlight. I didn’t know that would make the eyes so blue. When you use a flash the eyes are often black. I was lucky. That photo really inspired me to do more. When people saw it their jaws dropped. That’s why it’s on the cover. It was one of my first spider photos but always the one that created the most amazed reactions.
TBS: You say arachnophobia is a learned response, but the Sydney Funnel-web spider is the world’s deadliest spider. Shouldn’t we be afraid?
RW: With spiders, fear is the most dangerous reaction you can have. You can panic, hurt yourself, get bitten, cause accidents, make yourself sick with fear and pass your fear onto your children. Fear of spiders is irrational and unhelpful. Yes, you should be cautious and extremely careful, but how can you be when you’re freaking out, when you can’t bear to even look at the spider, flailing around trying to kill it, or collapsing in a whimpering wreck?
Fear of spiders can be switched on in childhood, not by the spider, but by seeing the scared face of another person. If you avoid spiders because you’re afraid of them, it can become a serious phobia. We’ve got ourselves into a stupid situation where fear is passed from parent to child. If you’re interested in spiders you’re actually far safer. The more you know about spiders the more you can avoid getting bitten, because you aren’t freaking out, you’re calm. I’ve been handling spiders for 10 years now, and haven’t been bitten once. I don’t take risks with deadly spiders. If I was panicky I’d be sure to hurt myself or damage my equipment or get bitten. Certainly, Funnel-webs are incredibly toxic to humans, but not to dogs, cats, horses or rabbits.
But even before the antivenom was developed in 1981, people were no longer dying from spider bites because medical care simply got better and has prevented deaths since 1979. The antivenom is a bonus because it makes recovery faster and less painful. The antivenom for Redback Spiders, used since 1956, is being phased out because researchers have found it’s no better than a placebo, and actually dangerous because of possible allergic reactions.
People don’t seem afraid of bees, and certainly don’t make the horror face when they see a bee, but bees are far more dangerous.
TBS: Many spiders are gorgeously colourful – Peacock Spiders, the Alien Butt Spider, the Rosy Crab Spider. How important are colours for their survival?
RW: It’s about two things – sex and secrecy.
First, sex. Male Peacock Spiders won’t get to mate if they’re not chosen by the female. They’re competing with other males to see who can be the most colourful, the showiest fan-spreader and the most impressive leg-wiggler in a complicated courtship dance that’s different for each species. If they weren’t able to impress the females, not only would they all die childless and alone, but their whole species would die out too.
Then there’s not getting eaten. For colourful ambush hunters in the Crab Spider family, survival depends on being invisible (camouflaged) to both predators and prey. Their colour allows them to hide in flowers and wait for insects. They’re also called Flower Spiders. Because they blend in with flower colours, insects literally won’t know what’s hit them.
Other colourful and reflective spiders sparkle and scatter light, confusing predators. They can even rapidly change colour by hiding their silvery mirror-like patches, turning into a neutral brown, going from being a disco-mirror-ball to a medicine ball in a split second.
TBS: What about webs? The x-shaped web of the St Andrew’s Cross Spider, the golden colour of orb weavers’ webs, the Redback’s messy web. Can webs tell us anything about particular spiders?
RW: Webs are signs of spiders even when you can’t see the spider itself, and can be important in identifying a spider and maintaining safety. If I see what looks like a Redback’s web, I’m careful to make sure the spider isn’t lurking in something I want to pick up, like a watering can or hose fitting.
The cross in the St Andrew’s Cross web is possibly to confuse predators, because they’re known to shake the web violently if threatened or disturbed.
Golden silk is only found in the web of the Golden Orb Weaver, which is completely harmless. Neither the silk nor the spider can hurt you. But if you blunder into a web and are so freaked out you run screaming waving your arms and legs trying to get the silk off you, you could run onto the road into the path of an oncoming bus and that’s not going to end well.
The main types of silk are sticky and not sticky. Sticky silk has two main uses – as a bungee rope allowing the spider to fall safely, stop in mid-air and climb back up; it can also trap insects in the sticky spirals built by orb-weavers.
Non-sticky silk is usually woolly and works by entangling the insect getting hooked on its spines and barbs. The study of silk types has been critical in figuring out the evolution of different spider types.
TBS: Some people keep tarantulas as pets – you can’t take them for a walk around the block or cuddle up with them in front of the television – so what’s the attraction?
RW: Well, they could. Perhaps not on a leash, but certainly in a container, if they wanted to show the spider round the neighbourhood. I can’t see the point of that, but you never know. And cuddling up in front of the television isn’t entirely beyond the realms of possibility. However, I doubt very much even David Attenborough would keep the attention of a Tarantula for very long. It would soon be wanting to ponderously escape into some safe dark corner like down the back of the couch, and that’s not going to end well either. Don’t forget Tarantulas do bite and they have big fangs that can really hurt. Their venom is deadly to cats and dogs, but not humans.
Spiders are the most successful terrestrial predators on the planet. If they didn’t exist we’d be drowning in insects. There’s something compelling about the killing power of a big Tarantula. If you feed them a cricket you’re going to witness a fairly savage life and death drama. I’m not a spider-pet person. They’re better off doing their job in the environment. But we do keep some at the museum for educating people about spiders.
TBS: What’s the most unusual spider you’ve come across in your travels?
RW: The most unusual spider is always the one I haven’t found yet. I should stress the important ecological role that spiders play. They help us understand ecological change and what makes a healthy environment. When nature’s out of balance, environmental catastrophes aren’t far behind. That’s what science is all about: understanding for survival.
But I confess that what gets me up each morning I’m on a scientific expedition is the thought of finding something totally bizarre that no one has ever seen before, and being the first to ever photograph it. I’ve had that treat many times, and hope there’ll be many more.
Of the ones I know about, or have seen already, I think the ones that look and smell like bird poo would have to take the cake for weird. I love the ant mimics, beetle mimics, wasp-mimicking spiders. They’re amazing.
If I had to pick a favourite it’d probably be the Alien Butt Spider, with huge distracting black alien eyes on its rear end. It’s now world famous but there it was, just sitting on a leaf in my backyard.