Spider scientists are an optimistic crowd. Maybe it’s just that we see things from a different perspective than arachnophobes. If you don’t believe me, look up Theridion grallator. Researchers in my field call this Hawaiian species the happy-faced spider because of the smiling curves on its back.
Spiders have a reputation for instilling fear. But working with them puts me in a good mood, given how much scientists have learned from their study.
Spider research has given us insight into evolution, such as why there is so much diversity within a single species. For example, why do happy-faced spiders or their colorful European counterparts, the candy-striped spider, come in so many different colors? Under some conditions a candy color is more beneficial to the spiders, but under other conditions the color doesn’t seem to matter. For example, spiders with darker colors heat up more easily in the sun. Also, predators detect some colors more easily than others.
Other spiders from other parts of this 400 million year old family tree provided blueprints for useful materials such as silk. Synthetic spider-inspired bristles have medical uses. They can be chemically decorated with antibiotics, designed to detach from the silk only when bacteria are active. In the future, antibiotic floss may be used for wound healing. Other useful substances that can be attached to silk include proteins that direct human cell growth, much like molecular traffic lights, which direct cell growth and guide repair.
Spiders are also natural pest controllers due to the imaginative techniques they use to catch their prey. Some of them trap their prey with webs, others lie in wait or stalk their targets. Some are active during the day while others work the night shift.
The tiny spiders weave a line of silk that acts like a sail to catch the wind and fly, so they can move quickly to pest hotspots. These strategies help them control unwanted visitor populations in our homes, such as houseflies, which can carry disease.
take the blame
Only a small number of spiders on the planet have venom that harms humans. Brazilian wandering spiders and Australian black widow spiders, commonly known as redbacks, are two examples, but the magnitude of the threat they pose is far less than people expect. In Australia, between 2000 and 2013, hornets and other stinging species were reportedly responsible for 27 human deaths, while 74 people died in incidents involving horses. Yet the figure for scorpions and spiders was zero.
Miscommunication fuels the anxiety we feel about spiders, especially those that live in urban environments – places like under the sofa and above the bathroom vanity. News articles that play on the worst fears of arachnophobes can seem highly researched. But they are sometimes littered with errors and may even be accompanied by images of the wrong animal, like the harmless reaper – which isn’t even a spider.
One of the creatures commonly found in our homes is the spindly-legged daddy spider, Pholcus phalangioides, which eats house flies and cannot harm humans. It just needs a warm environment and a few insects to catch, which it wraps tightly in silk to eat later.
Our homes are safe spaces for Pholque as they are largely free from predators and chemical threats such as insecticides. We often notice this spider as it matures in the fall. Once the mother spider has produced her egg sac, she holds onto it tightly until her spiders are ready to occupy the web next to her.
Whereas Pholque may not be as colorful as the happy face or candy stripe spiders, the species more than makes up for that with its personality. There are brave and timid Pholque which differ in their tendency to pirouette in their webs (a behavior known as whirling). Scientists don’t fully understand the whirlpool, but it’s likely a defense against predators such as jumping spiders, which rely on their excellent eyesight to hunt. Jumping spiders struggle to attack these dancing targets.
Spiders with style
Our leggy bathroom daddy is a relative of a different kind of Pholque first identified in caves in Manila, capital of the Philippines, in the late 1890s by naturalist Eugène Simon. It’s called Pholcus bicornutus and has what were originally thought to be horns on its head.
In fact, studies in 2016 showed that they weren’t horns but waxy hairs, which the spider shapes into points that wouldn’t look out of place in a 1970s punk fashion show. unusual hairstyle is unclear, but it shows how much there is to discover about spiders.
Many of us lead lifestyles disconnected from nature, buying food without going near a farm and spending much of our time glued to screens. It’s no wonder, then, that people react with alarm when a small form of wild animal manages to sneak into their homes. But the presence of spiders reminds us of the incredible pest control services they provide us for free.
The next time you spot a spider web on your windowsill, take a moment to marvel at the intricate and delicate construction that could inspire future treatments to fix our own bodies. If you find yourself hosting a dance party Pholquelet him pirouette in peace.