Readers’ wildlife photos

January 20, 2023 • 8:15 am

Thanks to those who sent in photos. We have anough to last about a week.

Today we have a photo-and-text story from Athayde Tonhasca Júnior. His narrative is indented, and you can click the photos to enlarge them.

The itsy bitsy influencers

Arachne, born in the ancient kingdom of Lydia, was really good at weaving. A masterful weaver, perhaps, but not wise. She boasted to the world about her skills, claiming she was better than Athena herself, the goddess of handicrafts. All that braggadocio reached heavenly ears, and the offended goddess thought it was time to take down the impertinent Lydian a peg or two. Disguised as an old woman, Athena appeared before Arachne and warned her that stirring up the gods could end in tears. Arachne not only ignored the old biddy’s advice but challenged her to a weaving contest. Athena revealed her true identity and shrieked back: “you’re on, she-dog!” (or words to that effect; translations vary). Proving beyond doubt she wasn’t wise, Arachne didn’t back down. Worse: she created a superb piece, but of tabloid content. Her tapestry depicted the unconventional liaison between a swan (Zeus in disguise) and Princess Leda, and Zeus cross-dressed as a satyr and as an eagle during other dalliances. Arachne also wove various romantic transgressions by members of the royal family such as Apollo, Dionysus and Poseidon.

Despite admitting defeat to the better weaver, Athena was incensed and humiliated – after all, Zeus was her daddy. She tore Arachne’s work to pieces and destroyed her loom. For Arachne, the drachma finally dropped. Horrified by her recklessness, she hanged herself. Athena, who acquired the post of goddess of wisdom, decided that the silly mortal had learned her lesson. She turned the hanging rope into a cobweb and brought Arachne back to life, but not as before. In Metamorphoses, Book VI, Ovid tells us what happened (translated by A. S. Kline): “Arachne’s hair fell out. With it went her nose and ears, her head shrank to the smallest size, and her whole body became tiny. Her slender fingers stuck to her sides as legs, the rest is belly, from which she still spins a thread, and, as a spider [arachni in Greek], weaves her ancient web.” Hereafter, Arachne’s descendants would hang from threads and carry on as skilled weavers.

Minerva (the Roman version of Athena) cancelling Arachne for her hate speech against the gods. Art by René-Antoine Houasse, 1706. Wikimedia Commons:

Arachne’s chronicle is one of the many myths, legends and symbolisms involving spiders (Class Arachnida, Order Araneae) in Western cultures. Despite their relevance in the humanities, spiders tend to provoke a range of negative emotions in people: fear, revulsion, loathing. Indeed, children of school age fear spiders the most, ahead of being kidnapped, predators or the dark. the American Psychiatric Association recognises arachnophobia, the persistent and irrational fright caused by spiders, as a mental disorder that afflicts a number of people. The innate fear of spiders and snakes is likely to be a remnant behaviour acquired during our evolutionary history for identifying and avoiding animals that could be harmful to us (e.g., New & German, 2015. Evolution and Human Behavior 36: 165-173).

Helping children to sleep peacefully: Little Miss Muffet is about to make an acquaintance. Art by Arthur Rackham, 1913. Wikimedia Commons:

Spiders’ negative image is not helped by misinformation: Mammola et al. amassed data from newspapers in 40 languages around the world and concluded that about half of the news was erroneous, misleading or sensationalist. This is deeply regrettable, as spider incidents involving humans or domestic animals are exceedingly rare, especially considering how abundant they are: you could bump into 130 to 150 individuals/m² in some habitats. But you are not likely to see most of them because they are small, nocturnal or hunt among the soil debris. The 45,000 or so known spider species are spread throughout practically every terrestrial habitat in the planet. Instead of biting people, spiders spend most of their time stalking or chasing unsuspecting prey (except for one herbivorous species, the wonderfully named Bagheera kiplingi). They are generalists, pouncing on whatever comes within their reach.

Insect pollinators have reasons to be particularly wary of one group of spiders: the crab or flower spiders (Family Thomisidae). Most of them are ambush predators: they sit perfectly still on a spot likely to be visited by insects, such as a flower, and wait for lunch to fly in. To make things worse for an inattentive insect expecting to collect pollen or get a sip of nectar, many flower spiders show some degree of crypsis, the ability to blend in with their environment to avoid detection (different from mimicry, which is disguising by resemblance to another organism). We can just say that flower spiders are very good at camouflage.

A female white-banded crab spider (Misumenoides formosipes) on a stakeout. She can change her colour between yellow and white to match the surroundings © Judy Gallagher, Wikimedia Commons.

Interestingly, flies are less susceptible to spider predation than bees, possibly because they have better vision and can avoid or dodge attackers. Bumblebees are also less likely to become prey than are solitary bees and honey bees, just because they are larger and bulkier and so more difficult to capture. It has been suggested that the long proboscis and the swing-hovering flying pattern of some moths have evolved as predator avoidance mechanisms: the further from the flower and less static, the better chance of escaping a lurking spider. But it’s not only through killing that spiders disrupt pollination: their mere presence results in insects making fewer visitations and spending less time on flowers. As a result, pollination rates and therefore seed production can be reduced (e.g., Romero et al., 2011. PLoS ONE 6,6: e20689).

Game over: a female crab spider (Thomisus onustus) capturing a bee © Alvesgaspar, Wikimedia Commons.

From the above, you may be tempted to go on a spider-killing spree in your garden to protect pollinators and pollination. That would a mistake. We have a limited understanding of the effects of predation on pollination, but there are no reasons for alarm. The numbers of flower visitors killed represent a fraction of their populations, so a spider wipe-out would not help anything. And because of the complexity of these interactions, there could be damaging consequences.

The crab spider Thomisus onustus, found across Europe, reduces bee visitation to buckler-mustard (Biscutella laevigata) flowers. But spiders have no preference for bees: they will take anything that comes their way. So insects that feed on vegetative parts (leaves, petals, etc.) are likely to be the spider’s main victims just because they are more abundant than pollen or nectar collectors (Knauer et al., 2018. Nature Communications 9, 1367). Without the spider, buckler-mustard could be munched away with impunity.

Crab spiders feeding on a furrow bee (Halictus sp.) and a cabbage moth caterpillar (Plutella xylostella) © A.C. Knauer (Knauer et al., 2018. Nature Communications 9, 1367):

In South America, the stingless bee Trigona spinipes visit fewer flowers of the pea-related Chamaecrista ramosa when crab spiders of the genus Misumenops are about. Which is good from the plant’s perspective because these bees are pollen robbers, that is, they help themselves to pollen without pollinating the flowers. But the carpenter bees Xylocopa ordinaria and X. hirsutissima, which are legitimate pollinators of C. ramosa, are not put off by the spiders, probably because they are too big and strong to be captured (Telles et al., 2019. Biological Journal of the Linnean Society 126: 521–532). So hosting a bee predator with restricted hunting abilities may be beneficial to the plant.

A Mesumenops bellulus ready to give a deadly embrace, but not to portly carpenter bees © Judy Gallagher and Bob Peterson, respectively. Wikimedia Commons:

Spiders are one of most important groups of predators on Earth, with enormous influence in the natural world. Nyffeler & Birkhofer estimated that spiders kill the equivalent of 400 to 800 million metric tons of prey annually worldwide. More than 90% of this biomass comprises springtails and insects, including a vast number of domestic and agricultural pests. For comparison, the annual food consumption of all the world’s seabirds is estimated at 70 million tons.

Tables set for lunch. For an insect, it’s dangerous out there:

Spiders’ carnage is hugely beneficial: it regulates the numbers of abundant species, preventing them from taking over, and keeps insects with outbreak potential (pests) in check. And they are also essential food items to other creatures: wasps, frogs, lizards, birds and even fish feed on spiders, sometimes substantially.

You don’t have to be fond of spiders; but being aware of their ecological importance would make them more accepted and valued, even if at distance.

To the delight of women’s rights champion J. K. Rowling, a new species of spider discovered in India in 2016 was named after Godric Gryffindor of sorting hat fame (Harry Potter series): Eriovixia gryffindori. New spider species are discovered all the time © India Biodiversity Portal and Suzelfe (Wikimedia Commons), respectively:

Johnny Cash, ‘The Man in Black’, was the source for the name of a new species of tarantula whose males are usually black: Aphonopelma johnnycashi. The spider was discovered near the California prison that inspired Cash’s song Folsom Prison Blues (1955). A. johnnycashi is one of the 14 new tarantula species recently found in the United States (Hamilton et al., 2016. Zookeys 560: 1-340) © Hamilton et al., Wikimedia Commons.

17 thoughts on “Readers’ wildlife photos

  1. Thank you for this entertaining spider lore. I once kept a pet spider named Ralph in a jar and fed him fruit flies, watching him in an attempt to desensitize myself to my fears. One day I awoke to a large red lump on my leg and discovered Ralph had somehow escaped, never to be seen again. I still jump when I see a spider, but I am fascinated by them.

    1. I have to confess that I am one of those humans who loathes and detests spiders. The thought of having one on my skin, in particular, fills me with horror. But images of spiders are enough to sicken* me (a strong word, I know, but it is what it is). I have to scroll quickly by any pictures of them. I’ve even thought of designing an app that would automatically prevent my browser from rendering any images that have the word “spider” in their descriptions.

      But even if I was sadly incapable of enjoying the pictures in this post, I did very much enjoy the text–especially the recounting of the myth of Athena and Arachne. (Even though Arachne is much the better person, I’m forced to take Athena’s side. That’s not just because I’m an Arachne-phobe, but also because my mother was named Athena by her very proud Greek father.)

      *This gave me a thought! I could take a page from the Muslim student protesting the showing of images of Muhammed. For example, If I was in a biology class, I could protest bitterly if the professor showed images of spiders. Why not? They DO cause me ‘harm’–from which it follows that any professor who showed such images in a class would be … what? Ararchnophobe-phobic??

  2. Meaningless connection :

    If anyone knows the song Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic by The Police, you have heard the Lydian mode – in particular, the sharp 4 (#4) – most people hear an uplifting, floating, ethereal sound.

    Exactly where the #4 shows up is left as an exercise for the listener. Actually, I hope I’m right…

  3. Great stuff es ever Athayde! For readers wanting to read more about the fascinating world of spiders and their cultural significance to us I’d recommend Paul Hillyard’s wonderful “The Book of the Spider” (1994).

  4. Let’s hear it for spiders! Nice report.

    As so many children do (or did), I loved Charlotte’s Web, which the teacher read to my kindergarten class over a period of several days. I couldn’t wait for that part of the day to arrive.

  5. No wonder Little Miss Muffet ran away—look at the size of that spider!

    I have come to tolerate spiders pretty well over the years, and the pictures in the Readers’ Wildlife Photos series keep pushing me in that direction.

  6. Always terrific!
    For those with a fear of spiders but would like to get over some of it, try a small jumping spider. They are cute, curious about you as well, and they will not bite unless you squeeze them.

  7. “Piders!” my 3yr old granddaughter calls out. She spots them I remove to a safe distance which is usually out of sight.
    A great post thanks.
    Spiders get vilified for simply being… some, from what I can tell take their arachnophobia to irrationality, they simply don’t like how they scurry around eight legs with eyes.

    1. Another interesting picture/narrative post, though I did become seriously distracted by the painting’s awkward depiction of the two characters – Athena’s extremely awkward and improbable foot positioning, Arachne’s long and brawny forearms – the shield’s shape which enables it to contact the floor on both sides of the spear’s shaft, and the difficulties of pushing off from the back foot on such an unstable base. Obviously, I’m not a competent art critic.

  8. I’m another arachnophobe who nevertheless enjoyed the commentary.
    A. johnnycashi is one of the 14 new tarantula species recently found in the United States – Yikes!

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