Friday, February 04, 2005

Spiders: A rebuttal

Upon reading Socar's journal entry of today, A Spiderless Tomorrow, I felt compelled to offer a few words (Ha! Right, Dave.) on behalf of the spiders.

Many among us are guilty of spider persecution, or at least are horrified and frightened by them. Not me. For I know many wondrous things about the eight-legged, and the myriad little ways they are gainfully employed. Not like the insects, who are in the main a bunch of overbreeding freeloaders and ne'er-do-wells.

As Socar pointed out, they may well see us as the invaders. Spider history goes back 400 million years, to the Devonian period; we are a bunch of altered apes who came on the scene in the last 70,000 years. All spiders are predators, and the main item in most spider diets is insects. Their scientific class, Arachnida, is named for the Greek tapestry weaver Arachne, who was turned into a spider by the goddess Athena. So right off the bat they have a literary air. Unlike insects, they have lungs, and their blood - haemolymph - is slightly bluish in colour. True nobility.

They are clever little creatures. They live underwater, at the top of Mt. Everest, on six continents - and it's likely that a few have packed off to Antarctica with the human crazies that work down there. Scientists have been trying to synthesize a material like spider silk for years; it's at least five times as strong as steel, twice as elastic as nylon, waterproof and stretchable. And yet for spiders, it's child's play - baby spiders can make perfect webs shortly after hatching.

Fear of them, by humans, is largely unjustified. Any spider smaller than about 1/4" (8 mm) in body length cannot break human skin with their tiny fangs, and most spider species are smaller than this. Even the larger species will only bite humans if they are pressed into close contact. That said, there are a few species in Australia (legendary for its huge, poisonous versions of everything) that have very toxic venom.

Before you take after one with your shoe, consider their usefulness. They are sentinels against the insect population; our world would be awash in insects without a dominant predator. A few spiders in your house can and will consume hundreds of mosquitos, cockroaches, ants and other pests. By curtailing mosquito populations, they form an important link in world disease control; in the same way they save hundreds of tons of crops each year from harmful insects.

So, while I do not advocate living in a roomful of them - nor do I myself - at least consider a more peaceful coexistence. When you see a web in some remote corner of your home, remember that the occupant may well be doing you a service, and give her* a break.

*Male spiders do not build webs.