Spiders and Hollywood and Phobias – oh my!‏

Just in time for Hallowe’en, Here’s Why wonders what the big scary deal is with spiders and humans. Why are so many of us afraid of spiders? We are on a Spider Quest to overcome this seemingly inexplicable phenomenon.

To aid in this, we are grateful to Rod Crawford, curator of arachnids at the Burke Museum in Seattle, WA, who very kindly addressed our questions via email. In this installment of the Spider Quest series, we will talk about why people are scared of spiders, how big tarantulas can get in real life vs. in Hollywood, what spiders eat, and even what they taste like in a good recipe.

So put down the bug spray (it won’t work) and set aside the idea that spiders are out to get you (they aren’t), and see why Hollywood spiders are really no more than scary thoughts.

As always, many thanks to Mr. Crawford for his detailed and helpful answers:

Here’s Why We read somewhere that the starburst pattern is an ancestral memory that promotes the fight-or-flight reaction – flight, mostly! Yet we adore starfish and many cultures eat king crab. Are we hard-wired to fear spiders, or is there some other reason we go pale and shaky around them?

Rod Crawford I don’t have any scientific data because that’s not my field of research – I study spiders, not silly frightened people. However, I do interact with a lot of the latter, of all ages, and as a result of this experience I can definitely state that spider fear is caused by nurture, not nature.

I give many spider programs to first-grade classes. Only a few kids in these classes are really afraid, and the vast majority are very willing to hold a live spider once they’ve seen their peers do so. Very often, in these classes there’s one kid who thinks it’s funny to yell and scream when he touches a spider and tries to startle the other kids into doing the same. Gradually, from this type of antisocial kid, from fearful relatives and teachers, and from Hollywood, the kids pick up spider fears.

At each grade level the percentage of fearful ones is higher until by 6th grade only a few kids in the class have completely escaped it. At some point in the process, cultural differences between girl-culture and boy-culture set in and the girls start to get it more than the boys – but the boys get plenty, and the sex difference is not really that marked among kids. Some people lose their fears as adults, but it seems to be predominantly men who do so, probably because adult-male culture encourages bravery more than adult-female culture does.

However, among professional arachnologists, the sex ratio is practically 50:50, which shows that women are just as likely as men to go all the way to a full-time enjoyment of spiders. In fact, this seems to be more the case in arachnology than in very many other scientific fields.

Only a small percentage of the fearful are full-fledged phobics. These latter tend to attribute their fears to some specific incident in their childhood. But I have no idea whether that’s really correct, or maybe they’re just reasoning after the fact based on psychobabble they’ve heard. Check out this article (in a library – it’s not available online): Hadley, Tad N. 1988. Entomophobia: The case for Miss Muffet.Bulletin of the Entomological Society of America 34(2): 64-69.

HW Hollywood loves to show these huge, hairy, roaring, screaming beasties pursuing helpless humans in the dark. I have two questions about that. The first relates to your earlier post – and many thanks for that – about spider noises. Would we hear a hunting spider shrieking after us?

RC The question about Hollywood spider sounds is closely connected with [the spider noises] post. They sure wouldn’t growl or snarl. If you could hear them (which is a big if – you’d need very high-tech amplification, or the ability to make yourself small like the Incredible Shrinking Man) many would probably sound like a cricket’s or grasshopper’s chirp. Some would probably sound like running a stick along a picket fence. Some higher-frequency ones might sound like a hiss. Wolf spider stridulations are rather sophisticated and can vary in speed and frequency within a single sound event. As I implied before [see Musical spiders? Well … yes] , at least one sounds like a motorcycle (when amplified).

Also, a spider would not stridulate at its prey! If you’re being chased by a giant spider, don’t expect to hear anything except footsteps.

HW My second Hollywood scary spider movie question is more of an engineering one. In theory, and all conditions being ideal, how big could a spider get before being unable to move on those big hairy legs? Big enough to eat people? Further to that, in real life, how big is the biggest spider in the world? Would it run from us? What is the biggest thing it might attack?

RC The biggest spiders are tarantulas. Although there’s some difference of opinion, Theraphosa leblondi (a.k.a. Theraphosa blondi, an incoorect spelling) is usually considered the biggest. Wild specimens of leblondi reportedly max out at 10 inches leg tip to leg tip, though typical specimens would be substantially smaller – my one specimen is 6 inches. I have heard that a 12 inch specimen has been captive reared but had to be hand fed because it couldn’t get around well enough to catch its own food. So that gives us a pretty good idea of when size gets beyond the “design limits” of basic spider structure.

A spider or insect of monster-movie scale would collapse into a pool of quivering jelly. The external skeleton wouldn’t hold it up (they have no internal bones). Also the respiratory systems wouldn’t get oxygen to that much tissue, and the open (no veins) circulatory system wouldn’t work either.

Tarantulas practically never attack anything as big as or bigger than them. A very big one (or smaller spiders with very strong webs) can on rare occasions catch a small vertebrate, but nothing bigger than a hummingbird or the smallest mice or lizards. No spider lives primarily on a vertebrate diet.

HW I’d like to ask a couple of food questions. Many world cultures eat crab, and some eat spiders. Are spiders and crabs related?

RC Spiders and regular crabs are no more closely related than spiders and insects. They’re all arthropods (exoskeleton, no bones) so have some basic structural similarity. Spiders are a bit closer to “horseshoe crabs” which are not true crabs at all. I don’t know offhand if horseshoe crabs are ever eaten.

HW The Burke Museum recently held a bug-feast and mentioned something about offering edible spiders. Did they really? Would you know if the rumor is correct that roast tarantula tastes like peanut butter? What is the nutritional value of spiders?

RC We often have David Gordon the “bug chef” at our annual Bug Day event. I’m happy to sample his dishes, including tarantula. As prepared by David, the tarantulas taste like whatever sauce he used. Orbweaver abdomens have more of a vegetable flavor, like raw potato or cabbage. According to W.S. Bristowe who studied entomophagy and arachnophagy in Thailand, their local tarantulas tasted like the “marrow of chicken bones.” Personally, my favorite edible insects are grasshoppers and crickets, much the best tasting. This year David experimented with cooking a giant centipede. He and I both agreed it wasn’t one of his greatest culinary successes – too much exoskeleton and not enough meat.

Bristowe analyzed the Thai edible tarantulas and found them to be 63% protein, far higher in protein than any other component of the local diet except fresh fish, which were not always available. There are several web sites on food insects that give similar statistics. Insects *must* be nutritious – all the best arachnids eat little else!

HW Thanks to your information here and in other posts, Mr. Crawford, we know that spiders don’t go trick-or-treating for humans and would really rather be out of our paths. Can you recommend any ways for arachnophobes to overcome our fears?

RC Well, learning more (starting with Spider Myths of course 🙂 ) is usually going to have some impact on fears that are based on ignorance and misinformation. But this may not be enough to combat a true phobia. I’m sorry to have to break this to phobics, but what they have is a mental illness. Fortunately, phobias have a surprisingly high cure rate with professional psychotherapy. They’re using high-tech methods now that seem to have a high success rate.

HW So there you have it. There is no such thing as a Hollywood-style monster spider, and the biggest, scariest monsters are all in our minds. As a recovering hard-core arachnophobe, Here’s Why can strongly recommend the links and sites below. Though we aren’t quite up to holding the little guys yet, we no longer swoon and call the fire department when we spot one on the wall.

Actually … they really are quite lovely.

Once again, many thanks to Rod Crawford from the Burke Museum in Seattle. Don’t miss Mr. Crawford’s Spider Myths website. It’s a fascinating (sometimes very funny!) look at the craziest stories ever told about spiders. You might want to visit his Spider Collector’s Journal as well. Both of these sites have gone a long way to helping this former arachnophobe appreciate the beauty of spiders.

Take a look at the Burke Museum’s post on house spiders and why we shouldn’t be scared of them, with more information from Mr. Crawford.


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