Dear Readers, when I read that London Zoo had created Europe’s first walk-through spider house, I naturally had to go and have a look. I am fascinated by spiders, and I was also intrigued to see if any actual conservation work was going on. Whilst I believe that most animals suffer as a result of incarceration, I suspect that, if well kept, invertebrates might be an exception. Plus, anything that helps humans stop killing spiders has got to be good for everybody.
The first exhibit features a typical UK spider scenario:
Yes, there’s a House Spider, located as usual next to the plug hole. I did wonder whether there were a series of spiders who were each star for a day, or if it was the one unfortunate individual who spent his life disgusting the visitors.
There are numerous species of spider here: there is a tank set up for a Fen Raft spider, one of the UK’s most endangered species. The keeper that I talked to told me that the spider had produced several egg sacs already in her previous home, and they that hoped that she would do the same in the exhibit, so that the youngsters could be reared and used to repopulate their original habitat in the Norfolk Broads. Thumbs up to that!
There was also a very splendid centimetre-long jumping spider with bright blue jaws. I couldn’t get a photo as he was jumping about trying to catch a bluebottle, but this is a male of the same species. I love that the English name for the species is Daring Jumping Spider.
Then, it was into the walk-through part of the exhibit.
The exhibit holds two species of Orb Web (Nephila) spiders: the Golden Orb Web Spider (Nephila inaurata madagascariensis) from Madagascar and the Golden Silk Orb Weaver (Nephila edulis) from Australia and New Guinea. Both, as you might guess, spin a kind of golden silk, which has been used to make clothes such as the cape below, made from the silk of the Madagascan species.
This is a female Madagascan spider, and what a fine creature she is. She reminds me rather of a licorice allsort.
As in most spiders, the females are much larger than the males (up to 30 times in the case of this species). The largest female had a leg-span roughly the size of my hand. All of the spiders were very sedentary, sitting happily on their webs and being fed with waxworms, although the keeper told me that there had been a flurry of excitement a few days earlier when the unluckiest bluebottle in Britain managed to fly into the only spider house in Europe.
As we watched, however, one adolescent female Golden Orb Web managed to force another off of her web, and away from her waxworm. It was interesting to see how conflicted the winner was – she would take a few bites, then turn to check on whether her rival was creeping up on her, then turn back to the food. It might be anthropomorphic to ascribe such human feelings as nervousness to an invertebrate, but the keeper told me that she’d noticed that some invertebrate individuals were bolder than others, and that they had their preferences and character traits just like more ‘advanced’ animals. So, maybe it’s not such a daft notion. After all, there would be an evolutionary advantage to have personality variation, just in case the environment changed to favour creatures with a particular set of behaviours.
The Golden Silk Orb Weaver is less brightly coloured than its Madagascan relative. It has a dough-coloured body with little dimples in the abdomen, and dark red legs. The web is so tough that in New Guinea, the fishermen make nets out of it. This particular individual had recently shed her skin, and so was looking very new-minted. The keeper had found her shed skin, called an exuvia, and it looked like a perfect crumpled spider. I imagine it takes quite a while to extract those long legs from their outworn armour. Incidentally, all spiders do this, and you can often find exuviae in cobwebs.
Of course, the people-watching in the spider house was as good as the spider-watching. A group of primary school children came in while I was taking photos, and I was very impressed with how sensible they were. In my experience, youngsters often take their cues from how the adults are, and the female keeper in the spider house was calm and enthusiastic.
I have long been interested in the whole notion of femininity and fear of insects and other invertebrates. I have seen more wasps swatted, more spiders stamped on and more perfectly innocent beetles crushed at the behest of ‘terrified’ girlfriends than in any other circumstance. I am not talking here about genuine arachnophobia, which I know can make people’s lives an absolute misery, and for which I have the utmost sympathy *. I also understand that if you live in a country which is home to dangerous spiders, you might be inclined to take action first and ask questions later. I’m talking about the kind of uncontrolled, slightly affected reaction that demands that someone step in and get rid of a harmless creature whose only crime is to have more than the usual number of legs. I am always a bit taken aback by how proud some folk are of their prejudices. I talked to the young woman who was serving in the zoo coffee shop, who announced that she hated all spiders, and would swat them on principle.
“But why? ” I asked. “After all, we’d be ankle-deep in flies if we didn’t have any spiders”.
She gave a delicious little shudder.
“I just don’t like the way they look”, she said.
Now, lots of people don’t like how spiders look. I cannot imagine a creature that is more physically different from us. There is nothing cuddly about spiders, nothing child-like or furry (unless you count those hairy legs). It’s OK not to like them. It’s the random swatting that gets me. My eighty year-old mother, who is not very mobile and who really doesn’t like spiders very much at all always removes the spiders using a handy spider-catching device on a stick and puts them outside, and if she can do it, so can the rest of us.
I’d like to think that the kind of education that the children who visited received might help them to live and let live when they see a spider advancing across the great plain of the kitchen floor. I’d also like to point out that if you have a spider reserve in your house, you are less likely to have all kinds of household pests. I suspect that if someone could find a spider that specialised in catching and killing clothes moths, a great enthusiasm for indoor spiders might develop. But in the meantime, if you are interested in spiders, the new London Zoo exhibit is a great place to watch some truly impressive specimens.
* If you are spider-phobic, and live within reach of London, can I suggest that you have a look at London Zoo’s Friendly Spider Programme? I’ve heard very good things about it from a number of ex-phobics, and the keeper in the Spider Exhibit told me that one of the women who now handles tarantulas for the ‘Meet the Creature’ sessions was too terrified to even look at a photo of a spider prior to going on the course.