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

    Turkey, US Splits Deepen Over Support for Kurdish Militants

    Ankara summons American ambassador to protest remarks by State Department spokesman who said Washington does not consider Syria's Kurdish Democracy Union Party (PYD) a terrorist organization

    Obama Seeking $19 Billion for National Cybersecurity

    Move, touted as attempt to build broad, cohesive federal response to cyberthreats, calls for increase in cybersecurity spending across all government agencies

    Video Foreign Policy Weighs Heavy for Some US Voters

    VOA talks to protesters in Manchester, New Hampshire, who sound off on foreign policy issues such as the Guantanamo Bay prison, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the wars in Iraq, Syria and Yemen

    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.
    Valentine's Day Stinks for Lebanese Clownsi
    X
    February 09, 2016 8:04 PM
    This weekend, on Valentine's Day in Lebanon, love is not the only thing in the air. More than half a year after the country's trash crisis began, the stink of uncollected garbage remains on the streets. Step forward "Clown Me In," a group of clowns who use their skills for activism. Before the most romantic day of the year the clowns have released their unusual take on love in Lebanon -- in a bid to keep the pressure up and get the trash off the streets. John Owens reports from Beirut.
    Video

    Video Valentine's Day Stinks for Lebanese Clowns

    This weekend, on Valentine's Day in Lebanon, love is not the only thing in the air. More than half a year after the country's trash crisis began, the stink of uncollected garbage remains on the streets. Step forward "Clown Me In," a group of clowns who use their skills for activism. Before the most romantic day of the year the clowns have released their unusual take on love in Lebanon -- in a bid to keep the pressure up and get the trash off the streets. John Owens reports from Beirut.
    Video

    Video Rocky Year Ahead for Nigeria Amid Oil Price Crash

    The global fall in the price of oil has rattled the economies of many petroleum exporters, and Africa’s oil king Nigeria is no exception. As Chris Stein reports from Lagos, analysts are predicting a rough year ahead for the continent’s top producer of crude.
    Video

    Video Foreign Policy Weighs Heavy for Some US Voters

    VOA talks to protesters in Manchester, New Hampshire who sound off on foreign policy issues such as the Guantanamo Bay Prison, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Middle East Affairs and national security.
    Video

    Video 'No Means No' Program Targets Sexual Violence in Kenya

    The organizers of an initiative to reduce and stop rape in the informal settlements around Kenya's capital say their program is having marked success. Girls are taking self-defense classes while the boys are learning how to protect the girls and respect them. Lenny Ruvaga reports from Nairobi.
    Video

    Video New Hampshire Voters Are Independent, Mindful of History

    Once every four years, the northeastern state of New Hampshire becomes the center of the U.S. political universe with its first-in-the-nation presidential primary. What's unusual about New Hampshire is how seriously the voters take their role and the responsibility of being among the first to weigh in on the candidates.
    Video

    Video Chocolate Lovers Get a Sweet History Lesson

    Observed in many countries around the world, Valentine’s Day is sometimes celebrated with chocolate festivals. But at a festival near Washington, the visitors experience a bit more than a sugar rush. They go on a sweet journey through history. VOA’s June Soh takes us to the festival.
    Video

    Video 'Smart' Bandages Could Heal Wounds More Quickly

    Simple bandages are usually seen as the first line of attack in healing small to moderate wounds and burns. But scientists say new synthetic materials with embedded microsensors could turn bandages into a much more valuable tool for emergency physicians. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Bhutanese Refugees in New Hampshire Closely Watching Primary Election

    They fled their country and lived in refugee camps in neighboring Nepal for decades before being resettled in the northeastern U.S. state of New Hampshire -- now the focus of the U.S. presidential contest. VOA correspondent Aru Pande spoke with members of the Bhutanese community, including new American citizens, about the campaign and the strong anti-immigrant rhetoric of some of the candidates.
    Video

    Video Researchers Use 3-D Printer to Produce Transplantable Body Parts

    Human organ transplants have become fairly common around the world in the past few decades. Researchers at various universities are coordinating their efforts to find solutions -- including teams at the University of Pennsylvania and Rice University in Houston that are experimenting with a 3-D printer -- to make blood vessels and other structures for implant. As VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Houston, they are also using these artificial body parts to seek ways of defeating cancerous tumors.
    Video

    Video Helping the Blind 'See' Great Art

    There are 285 million blind and visually impaired people in the world who are unable to enjoy visual art at a museum. One New York photographer is trying to fix this situation by making tangible copies of the world’s masterpieces. VOA correspondent Victoria Kupchinetsky was there as visually impaired people got a feel for great art. Joy Wagner narrates her report.
    Video

    Video German Artists to Memorialize Refugees With Life Jacket Exhibit

    Sold in every kind of shop in some Turkish port towns, life jackets have become a symbol of the refugee crisis that brought a million people to Europe in 2015.  On the shores of Lesbos, Greece, German artists collect discarded life jackets as they prepare an art installation they plan to display in Germany.  For VOA, Hamada Elrasam has this report from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video E-readers Help Ease Africa's Book Shortage

    Millions of people in Africa can't read, and there's a chronic shortage of books. A non-profit organization called Worldreader is trying to help change all that one e-reader at a time. VOA’s Deborah Block tells us about a girls' school in Nairobi, Kenya where Worldreader is making a difference.
    Video

    Video Genius Lets World Share Its Knowledge

    Inspired by crowdsourcing companies like Wikipedia, Genius allows anyone to edit anything on the web, using its web annotation tool
    Video

    Video In Philippines, Mixed Feelings About Greater US Military Presence

    In the Philippines, some who will be directly affected by a recent Supreme Court decision clearing the way for more United States troop visits are having mixed reactions.  The increased rotations come at a time when the Philippines is trying to build up its military in the face of growing maritime assertiveness from China.  From Bahile, Palawan on the coast of the South China Sea, Simone Orendain has this story.