It’s completely normal to be afraid of spiders. Millions of people across the globe hate these strange, eight-legged creatures and are quick to smash them. This is understandable. Everything about spiders is unnerving, from their many eyes to the way they scuttle across vertical surfaces. The widespread fear of spiders may have its roots in evolution as it’s perfectly possible to be afraid of spiders without ever encountering one.
However, one of the first steps to combat this dread is to start with a little research. While treating an intense phobia should be done through professional therapy, learning a little bit about spiders can help take the edge off the fear and maybe instill respect for these fascinating creatures.
The Biology of Spiders
There’s good news for spider haters everywhere: Spiders aren’t very smart. Like with most insects and arachnids, the life of the average spider is very simple. They hatch from their eggs with the genetic coding that determines how they will behave for the rest of their eight-legged lives. When they sense a specific stimulus, they usually respond to it the same way every time. As such, they are very predictable and they simply don’t have the mental capacity to plot a spider uprising from the shadows. The only spiders that have measurable cognitive ability are jumping spiders and wolf spiders and while they might surprise an unsuspecting human, neither species poses any real danger.
Spiders also have horrible stamina. Unlike mammals, which have a robust circulatory system to keep them active, they don’t even have veins. Instead, the hemolymph (spider and insect blood) flows through the spider’s entire body, all the way down to a spider’s hairy toes. In fact, there are parts of a spider’s leg that don’t have muscles. Just like a piece of heavy construction machinery, each spider step is primarily powered by hydraulics. This is good news for a few reasons. While spiders can move quickly in short bursts, their cold little hearts can’t pump blood into their legs very quickly. When the temperature drops, their blood cools and their entire system of locomotion shuts down with it. So, no matter how quick and creepy they seem, a human will always be able to outrun a spider.
Spiders Are Very Useful
Spiders also provide an invaluable service to ecosystems across the world. While a single spider may not impact an insect population, the global spider population consumes 400-800 million tons of insects. Spiders eat mosquitos that spread irritation and disease to millions. They eat pest insects, such as roaches or flies that can decimate crops and wild plant life. They eat beautiful butterflies — which is unfortunate but part of the package deal. In addition to functioning as important insect predators, they are also important prey for birds and other animals.
Spiders fill many niches in the wilderness but they are surprisingly useful in labs and classrooms. Spider venom has the potential to be incredibly useful in the medical field. The different chemicals that have brewed within spider fangs over millions of years may contain the ingredients to life-saving medications. Different kinds of venoms have been studied for their potential to kill tumors and treat chronic pain.
Even engineers have taken an interest in spiders. Spider silk is incredibly strong for its size and flexibility; it is reportedly five times stronger than steel. Synthetic spider silk is incredibly difficult to create, but scientists have been hard at work studying spiders in an attempt to create such a marvelous and potentially useful substance. If there was enough spider silk to be commercially viable it could be used in medical implants, surgical mesh, bulletproof vests and more. There are promising developments involving gene editing, silkworms and sometimes goats.
It’s clear that most spiders are easy to outsmart and that they have a lot to offer, but they’re also fascinating creatures in their own right. There are thousands of different species, all with their own unique adaptations that help them survive. And some of these adaptations are downright bizarre.
For example, the diving bell spider lives mostly underwater. It builds itself a bubble nest where it lives for most of its life. Another example is the male peacock jumping spider, which has an abdomen that looks like a psychedelic throw rug, which helps him perform spectacular mating dances. The mirror spider, like its name suggests, has an abdomen covered with silvery spots that reflect light. There are spiders with bright colors, spiders that look like ants, spiders that look like plants and many more.
Although they may not be everyone’s cup of tea, they can be very interesting, and even beautiful. Few creatures in the animal kingdom can claim the same level of weirdness and diversity as spiders.
It’s disingenuous to say that spiders are completely harmless. Most of them are, but there are a few that are poisonous to humans. With that said, knowing a few facts can help people avoid panic and deal with their spider situation with a level head.
No, not everyone needs to love spiders. There’s an inherent creepiness to all those eyes and legs and if that makes someone shiver and squirm, there’s nothing wrong with that. At the same time, understanding a little bit about spiders can help take the edge off of the fear in favor of respect.