Questions for Spider Woman

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Questions for Spider Woman

Lynne Kelly is a prolific science writer whose books demonstrate an insatiable curiosity and a rationalist approach to the world. In Skeptics Guide to the Paranormal* Lynne’s passion for the natural world is clear:

Science is awesome – from the atoms to the universe via the human brain, there is so much we still don’t know. We don’t need pseudoscience to embellish reality.

I’m interested to talk to Lynne about her recent book Spiders: learning to love them* and learn more about an animal that is ubiquitous and yet usually overlooked or feared.

The first question, which seems obvious, but I know from reading your book has a much more complicated and interesting answer than we may suspect, is – what are spiders?

It is an important question. Spiders are little critters who have eight legs attached to the first of two body segments. Insects, by comparison, have six legs and three body segments*. In spiders, the first two, the head and thorax, are fused into a single body part, the cephalothorax. The round hind part, the abdomen, has spinnerets at the end which produce silk. A single spider will produce a huge range of silks, which is an extraordinary material*.

A large proportion of people will naturally draw spiders with the legs attached to the abdomen rather than the cephalothorax, and that is why they look wrong. There is also a confusion about daddy long-legs and harvestmen*. Both are arachnids, both have eight long and spindly legs, but the spider version has two body parts and spins webs while the harvestman version has only one body part and no silk.

This book is more than a natural history volume about spiders. It also documents your changing attitude towards them. Can you describe your experience of arachnophobia, and what eventually led you to make the decision to attempt to overcome it?

Two or three nights a week, at least, I would wake up screaming as a result of nightmares in which I saw hordes of spiders crossing the bedspread towards me. It took quite a bit to get rid of that image again and manage to sleep. The family was singularly unimpressed at being woken. At the same time, despite my long-term interest in natural history, my time in the bush was becoming more and more degraded by constantly feeling that spiders were crawling on me. I kept trying to brush the non-existent creatures off me. We lived in rural Australia, so there were always plenty of spiders around the house. For some reason, in my thirties, my fear of them grew to irrational levels and was interfering with my daily life.

The worst were the huntsman spiders*. In Australia these are very common, very large and worst of all, totally unpredictable. They are also absolutely harmless. The fear of them is far more than of the redbacks* and funnel-web spiders* which, theoretically, can kill you. The kitchen wall can suddenly have a large huntsman sitting where a moment before there was nothing. And worse, a moment later it is gone and you have no idea where it is nor where it will reappear. They also move unpredictably, often sideways and often fast. Fear of the harmless huntsman is far more prevalent than fear of the potentially dangerous spiders.

But I adore all animals and cannot abide cruelty nor the thought of killing a creature just because of my irrational fear. Each spider had to be taken outside by my patient husband. But there is always going to be another one. I figured that as it is an irrational fear, a rational approach must be able to conquer it.

Once you had decided that you had to confront your phobia, how did you decide to go about that process, and what kept you motivated throughout what must have been an often gruelling experience?

I must admit that I expected it to be a gruelling experience, but the spiders, once I gave them the chance, soon turned my fear fascination. I was too scared to go to any arachnophobia treatment program in case they put a spider on me and I gathered that was the endpoint. So I decided that knowledge was the solution. I bought books on spiders that found I couldn’t even touch the photos in them, in some cases not even look at them. But I forced myself to do so.

At the same time, I stopped doing some of the house work, an easy approach for me. In eastern Australia if you leave the outside windows untouched, you will soon have spiderlings*, black house or grey house spiders (both Badumna species*), building their little funnel webs into the corners. So I started watching the tiny spiders from the safety of the inside of the window. I named the individuals and watched them grow. I found their behaviour was predictable which reduced my fear substantially. Then I ventured outside and found whenever I approached them they disappeared into their funnelled retreats. This had a massive impact on my fear because no spider ever approached me and none ever showed aggression.

I was having breakfast one day when one of our red wattlebirds systematically removed every one of my familiar spiders for food. I was surprised how upset I was and how much I mixed checking out my small companions. This started a process of locating spiders and observing them. I started trying to identify them and found when I was looking at the pictures in the books that I was no longer seeing a whole scary spider that was looking for details that might identify the real spiders I was looking at. Curiosity was overcoming fear.

One day I had found the location of a garden orb weaver web*. The next night I came out and watched the owner spin a new orb web. That 45 minute experience changed me forever. It is an extraordinary thing to watch in the familiarity of your own garden. I was immediately obsessed and have been obsessed by these gorgeous creatures ever since.

I was struck by how dramatically your perception of spiders changed. Hearing you speak about them - especially individuals you’ve personally encountered - it’s clear you now have great empathy for them. I see a parallel with how we, as animal advocates, are trying to encourage people to reconsider their attitudes towards the animals who are exploited in animal agriculture and elsewhere. Reflecting on your experience, do you have any insight on how people’s minds are changed?

That’s a very good question which I haven’t thought about as much as I should have before. I think the big issue was that I didn’t see spiders as a general group of hairy creatures but as individual animals. I’d known that birds eat spiders all my life, but when a bird ate spiders I had given names to, it was very very different.

We can’t empathise with a large amorphous group as well as we can with individuals. I guess that’s why when there are tragedies of human proportions, we respond much more to an individual with a name who is gunned down than a report of 5000 people killed in some foreign war.

One concern for me as an animal lover was that I have fallen in love with a group of animals that preys only on living creatures. Accepting that aspect has been more gruelling than the learning to love them.

Vegans are often challenged with complicated questions about animal minds, though usually in reference to much larger and more personable creatures like cows and pigs. What sort of cognitive abilities do spiders demonstrate? And how much is known about how their brains work?

The absolutely critical point here is that very little is known about how their brains work. I have heard so many people say spiders don’t feel pain because they don’t have the same neural receptors that mammals do. I asked an arachnologist about this and he agreed that they don’t have the same nervous structures, but that doesn’t mean they don’t feel pain nor have a emotional reactions. What it does mean is that we simply don’t know. However, he pointed out that we do know that they respond to stimuli quite strongly. Gently blow on a spider, and it will run. The assumption surely must mean that they feel pain. Obviously, with mammals, this is so much more definite.

Spiders sense the world through their hairs. The spiky hairs are particularly sensitive. Many spiders, particularly the web builders, have very poor eyesight and detect the world through touch. The web is basically an extension of this sense. But individuals differ, and this was something that astounded me over the years I got to know my fairly large populations of black house spiders and large burrowing wolf spiders on our large bush block. Most of them, to observe on the web or at the mouth of the burrow, required me to sneak up on them. By this stage I had become quite enthralled with macrophotography and capturing their lives through the thousands of photographs I took. Some would reliably stay out on view as long as I didn’t move too quickly. Others would detect my movement either through the air or vibrations or the ground when I was still many metres away and they’d be gone.

One spider whose cognitive abilities has been studied in depth is a tiny scrap of a jumping spider we have here in Australia. The genus name is Portia*, so it’s impossible not to refer to it as ‘she’ when there are clearly males involved. Portia, under laboratory conditions, was placed on a small pedestal with the prey on another pedestal outside her jumping distance. Three paths lead to the prey, with two taking her in the prey’s direction, but would not get her there. She needed to take the third path which involved turning round, losing sight of the prey, and then coming out above it. Repeated experiments showed that she did this the majority of the time. She would sit, scan the area, analyse the result and act. But it gets more amazing than that.

Portia often feeds on other spiders. She will create a small web on the edge of another spider’s web and then vibrate the web in a way that draws her prey out. It is always assumed that these small creatures use instinct and so she is behaving purely instinctively. So they put Portia within a range of one of my beloved black house spiders. These two species do not overlap naturally in the wild. Portia started twanging the web and the black house spider did not respond. She kept twanging over three days, sending out a cacophony of signals until she started to get a response and then refined her tune until the black house spider responded*. Is this intelligence, decision-making? It all depends on semantics.

Discussions about animal consciousness often exclude, or perhaps simply forget, spiders and other arthropods. The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness*, for example, acknowledges that mammals, birds and certain cephalopods have the neurological substrates and exhibit behaviours consistent with consciousness – but spiders are not mentioned. Is there any evidence to suggest they, or any of their close relations, possess consciousness?

We will here get into a discussion of the definition of consciousness and neurological substrates, which is well beyond my area of expertise. But having observed spiders over a decade now, I can’t imagine that you could ever exclude them from any discussion of being aware of their surroundings.

One of my wolf spiders*, Theresa (that’s who the photo is of), lived in a burrow I photographed every night for over a year. One day her burrow was attacked by one of our large birds, the white winged chough, who dig up spider burrows. I was devastated. But that night a rather bedraggled Theresa emerged, with babies still on her back as is their habit. She went a few centimetres from the burrow, took hold of a small piece of curved bark and returned it to the burrow entrance. Reviewing my photographs of the previous year, I could see that it had always been there. Over the next fortnight she repaired her burrow to its former glory. I’m not sure how others interpret this, but I can only conclude that she had some particular attachment to that piece of bark.

The best people to ask about this would be those who own tarantulas* as pets. That is much more common in England and parts of the U.S. than it is in Australia, because it’s illegal to import the New World tarantulas here and our own are far less docile. I used to be horrified about tarantulas as pets, but once I met, and held, some pet tarantulas I became far less concerned. These creatures were definitely individuals and very much aware of their surroundings and the people they were interacting with.

Your work, particularly in this book, falls at the intersection of rationality and empathy. As ‘reasonable vegans’ we are often considering the relative virtues of reason and compassion. I wonder how you see those two values as directing your work, and if you see one of these motivations as more valuable in communication and education?

The book was originally intended for a more dispassionate natural history series but I couldn’t help tell the stories of the individuals I had got to know so well. I couldn’t hide the way I felt about spiders. My publisher, Allen & Unwin, not only accepted this approach but told me that I had found my voice as a writer and published it outside the series. There has been some criticism of the book because I name the individuals, but there has been far more praise of it for exactly the same reason.

I can become almost irrational in my affections of spiders, and I guess this has helped me accept being able to observe their carnivorous ways. I try to find that delicate balance between helping people see spiders as individuals, as tiny creatures far more afraid of us than we should ever be of them, and a rational acceptance of the world as it really is. I feel that you do need a certain degree of empathy to fully appreciate spiders. As for the world, and in particular human treatment of animals, I am a very long way from understanding it.

Most important of all, I’m a much better person because of my empathy for other people and animals. If I’ve gone too far, then that’s fine by me.

May I add a further comment for readers who may have a fear of Australian spiders. It’s all a myth. Our spiders haven’t killed anyone for fifty years, and very rarely even then. Of all the creatures in Australia that can kill, with the obvious exception of humans, the most dangerous is the introduced European honeybee. Allergic reactions kill the occasional person each year, while our spiders kill no-one.

Thanks to Lynne for taking the time to answer our questions and educating us about these amazing creatures. If you want to find out more about Lynne’s work you can check out her website, lynnekelly.com.au. If you want to find out more about spiders I highly recommend Spiders: learning to love them, Lynne’s book is accessible and informative and may just inculcate a fascination for spiders in you.

Rebecca Fox is as likely to be found meditating and burning incense as she is in an academic library, and yet is a passionate atheist and a skeptic. Her artistic career is fuelled primarily by ingestion of soy lattes. Her artwork can be found at rebeccaonpaper.com. Her vegan and skeptical activism is fuelled by critical thinking and compassion.

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