News / Science & Technology

Exhibit Puts Friendly Face on Spiders

Trapdoor spiders spend most of their time in underground burrows, emerging mainly to grab prey. Their rear half is segmented, a trait visible in some of the earliest spider fossils. (© AMNH\R. Mickens)
Trapdoor spiders spend most of their time in underground burrows, emerging mainly to grab prey. Their rear half is segmented, a trait visible in some of the earliest spider fossils. (© AMNH\R. Mickens)
Adam Phillips
Spiders, a unique class of creatures known as arachnids, come in 43,000 varieties and have thrived for nearly 300 million years on every continent except Antarctica.

Despite their ubiquity - and our frequent contact with them in our homes, gardens and farms - spiders are poorly understood and not well appreciated. A new exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History in New York is out to change that.
 
The museum boasts the world’s largest spider collection, and has populated its new “Spiders Alive!” exhibit with a diverse sampling. Live specimens of 20 different species crawl about in the exhibition’s glass display case, from the tarantula, which can grow to the size of a dinner plate, to the goliath birdeater, and the infamous Black Widow with its distinctive hourglass markings.

Many people think spiders are insects but, unlike insects, spiders have no wings or antennae. Their exoskeletons come in two parts, not three, and they periodically molt those protective shells for new ones. Like other arachnids, such as scorpions and ticks, spiders have eight legs, not six.  

Exhibition curator Norman Platnick says a spider can even lose a leg and live. “And in fact if happens young enough when the spider still has several molts before it becomes an adult, it can even regrow that leg. So clearly, if you can lose them, then having more is an advantage.”

  • Charlotte’s Web author E.B. White consulted with a museum curator while writing the classic children’s book. She named the main character Charlotte A. Cavatica after a common orb weaver, Araneus cavaticus.
    (© AMNH\R. Mickens)
  • Ornamental tarantulas can be as colorful as tropical birds, a sharp contrast to the fearsome, dark and dangerous creatures many imagine. (© AMNH\R. Mickens)
  • This active hunter searches for food on foot, aided by sharp vision and its ability to sense vibrations—like those of the beating wing on an insect or the patter of steps on the soil. (© AMNH\R. Mickens)
  • One of the few species harmful to people in North America, a black widow often features a red hourglass shape on its underside. (© AMNH\R. Mickens)
  • This is a rare 100-million-year-old spider fossil in limestone. Spiders do not preserve well in sediment because they have a relatively soft “shell.”  (© AMNH\D. Grimaldi)
  • One of the biggest spiders in the world, the Goliath bird eater preys on snakes, mice, and frogs but, despite the name, rarely birds. (© AMNH\R. Mickens)
  • This stunning tarantula, which lives mainly on the Pacific coast of Mexico, resides in burrows, hurrying out to prey on insects, small frogs, lizards, and mice. (© AMNH\R. Mickens)
  • Trapdoor spiders spend most of their time in underground burrows, emerging mainly to grab prey. Their rear half is segmented, a trait visible in some of the earliest spider fossils. (© AMNH\R. Mickens)
  • This spider was trapped in tree resin about 20 million years ago. Over time the resin fossilized into amber, preserving the animal inside. (© AMNH\D. Grimaldi)


If bugs give you the creeps, you might want to consider that if it weren’t for spiders, we'd all be neck-deep in insects. On just a single hectare of land, a normal population of spiders can devour as much as 80 kilograms of bugs each year, according to Platnick.

“If the spiders were not here, we might not be here either because insects would have devoured all those crops,” he says.

Spiders’ methods for hunting and eating their prey are both strange and ingenious. While humans begin to digest food once it's inside the mouth, most spiders pierce their prey with specialized fangs, then inject them with a paralyzing venom. Next, they regurgitate digestive fluid into their victim’s bodies, essentially liquefying them in their shells.   

“And then the spider sucks up the liquid like a milk shake,” says Hazel Davies, the museum’s curator of living exhibits.

Few spiders have venom that can hurt a person. In fact, some spider venoms may be beneficial to human health.

“Some spider venoms, or some component of the venoms of some species of spiders, seem to be able to inhibit the transmission of certain nerve impulses across synapses,"  says Platnick. "So people are looking at those kinds of venoms as potential cures for certain kinds of neurological diseases, like epilepsy, that involve those kinds of transmissions.”   
 
Only about half of the world’s 43,000 spider species spin webs.   

“The other half are hunting spiders. They actively hunt down their prey," says Platnick. "Or they may be fairly sedentary like crab spiders and tarantulas and wait for the prey to come near them.”

Spiders who spin webs must also wait for an insect to become ensnared. Depending on the species, webs can be beautifully symmetrical or a seemingly random jumble. Either way, Platnick says the silk itself has wondrous properties. For example, some silks have a tensile strength far greater than a comparable strand of steel.  

“If we could develop man-made equivalents of spider silk, we could revolutionize everything from parachutes to bulletproof vests,” he says.    

Because spider silks contain a vast inventory of potentially useful proteins, Platnick advocates that spiders’ natural habitats be protected from human incursions, such as logging. He leads a National Science Foundation-funded initiative called the Planetary Biodiversity Inventory, a project that has engaged more than 45 arachnid experts in 12 countries.

“Any time enough habitat gets destroyed that we lose a species, we may be losing something extremely valuable too," he says, "and, in many cases, that means we lose it even before we knew it existed.”
     
The “Spiders Alive!” exhibition will be on display at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City until early December 2012.

You May Like

Brutality Eroding IS Financial Support

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper says IS's penchant for publicizing beheadings, other brutal forms of punishment hurts group’s bottom line More

Studies: Climate Change a Factor in Disasters in Syria, California

Studies point to possibility of clear and present dangers from a threat often considered to be far in the future More

Video Afghan Refugees Complain of Harassment in Pakistan

Afghan officials and human rights organizations assert that Pakistani authorities are using deadly attack at school in Peshawar as pretext to push out Afghan refugees More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Kerry Seeks Assurances of Russian Non-Interference in Ukrainei
X
March 03, 2015 3:11 AM
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has told his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, that his country could face further consequences to what he called its “already strained economy” if Moscow does not fully comply with a cease-fire in Ukraine. The two met, on Monday, on the sidelines of a U.N. Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva, where Kerry outlined human rights violations in Russian-annexed Crimea and eastern Ukraine. VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins reports from Geneva.
Video

Video Kerry Seeks Assurances of Russian Non-Interference in Ukraine

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has told his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, that his country could face further consequences to what he called its “already strained economy” if Moscow does not fully comply with a cease-fire in Ukraine. The two met, on Monday, on the sidelines of a U.N. Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva, where Kerry outlined human rights violations in Russian-annexed Crimea and eastern Ukraine. VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins reports from Geneva.
Video

Video Smartphones May Help in Diagnosing HIV

Diagnosing infections such as HIV requires expensive clinical tests, making the procedure too costly for many poor patients or those living in remote areas. But a new technology called lab-on-a-chip may make the tests more accessible to many. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Afghan Refugees Complain of Harassment in Pakistan

Afghan officials have expressed concern over reports of a crackdown on Afghan refugees in Pakistan following the Peshawar school attack in December. Reports of mass arrests and police harassment coupled with fear of an uncertain future are making life difficult for a population that fled its homeland to escape war. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports from Islamabad.
Video

Video Ukrainian Volunteers Prepare to Defend Mariupol

Despite the ongoing ceasefire in Ukraine, soldiers in the city of Mariupol fear that pro-Russian separatists may be getting ready to attack. The separatists must take or encircle the city if they wish to gain land access to Crimea, which was annexed by Russia early last year. But Ukrainian forces, many of them volunteers, say they are determined to defend it. Patrick Wells reports from Mariupol.
Video

Video Moscow Restaurants Suffer in Bad Economy, Look for Opportunity

As low oil prices and Western sanctions force Russia's economy into recession, thousands of Moscow restaurants are expected to close their doors. Restaurant owners face rents tied to foreign currency, while rising food prices mean Russians are spending less when they dine out. One entrepreneur in Moscow has started a dinner kit delivery service for those who want to cook at home to save money but not skimp on quality. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports.
Video

Video US, Cuba Report Progress in Latest Talks to Restore Ties

The United States and Cuba say they have made progress in the second round of talks on restoring diplomatic relations more than 50 years after breaking off ties. Delegations from both sides met in Washington on Friday to work on opening embassies in Havana and Washington and iron out key obstacles to historic change. VOA’s Mary Alice Salinas reports from the State Department.
Video

Video Presidential Hopefuls Battle for Conservative Hearts and Minds

One after another, presumptive Republican presidential contenders auditioned for conservative support this week at the Conservative Political Action Conference held outside Washington. The rhetoric was tough as a large field of potential candidates tried to woo conservative support with red-meat attacks on President Barack Obama and Democrats in Congress. VOA Political Columnist Jim Malone takes a look.
Video

Video NYC's Restaurant Week: An Economic Boom in Fine Dining

New Yorkers take pride in setting world trends — in fashion, the arts and fine dining. The city’s famous biannual Restaurant Week plays a significant role in a booming tourism industry that sustains 359,000 jobs and generates $61 billion in yearly revenue. VOA's Ramon Taylor reports.
Video

Video Brookhaven at Cutting Edge of US Energy Research

Issues like the Keystone XL pipeline, fracking and instability in the Middle East are driving debate in the U.S. about making America energy independent. Recently, the American Energy Innovation Council urged Congress and the White House to make expanded energy research a priority. One beneficiary of increased energy spending would be the Brookhaven National Lab, where clean, renewable, efficient energy is the goal. VOA's Bernard Shusman reports.
Video

Video Southern US Cities Preserve Civil Rights Heritage to Boost Tourism

There has been a surge of interest in the American civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s, thanks in part to the Hollywood motion picture "Selma." Five decades later, communities in the South are embracing the dark chapters of their past with hopes of luring tourism dollars. VOA's Chris Simkins reports.
Video

Video Deep Under Antarctic Ice Sheet, Life!

With the end of summer in the Southern hemisphere, the Antarctic research season is over. Scientists from Northern Illinois University are back in their laboratory after a 3-month expedition on the Ross Ice Shelf, the world’s largest floating ice sheet. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, they hope to find clues to explain the dynamics of the rapidly melting ice and its impact on sea level rise.
Video

Video Lao Dam Project Runs Into Opposition

A Lao dam project on a section of the Mekong River is drawing opposition from local fishermen, international environmental groups and neighboring countries. VOA's Say Mony visited the region to investigate the concerns. Colin Lovett narrates.

All About America

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More