Wednesday, May 28, 2003

Those Nasty Spider Webs

We all feel disgusted and violated when we step into an unseen spider web. What good can that material possibly be?

Well, it just so happens that the silk of a spider can be rather handy. Until WWII, spider silk was used for crosshairs in optical devices, including microscopes, telescopes, guns, and bombing systems. Today, some military facilities still keep a spider around to provide the crosshairs in old instruments.

To this day, Australian aborigines still use the silk of a giant spider for fishing lines.

Another benefit of spider silk seems to be nearly unbelievable. It is a known fact that spider silk is stronger than steel of the same diameter. Consequently, scientists are in the process of developing spider silk for use in the next generation of bulletproof vests. Currently, bulletproof vests are made of Kevlar, which provides a dependable barrier against bullets. Soldiers and police personnel, however report that Kevlar vests are heavy; inflexible and hot to wear. Vests made of spider silk may resolve these problems.

In addition to being super strong, spider silk is also very elastic. One teaspoon of spider silk can be stretched to almost three miles. If it were possible to create a strand of pencil-thick spider silk, it would be capable of stopping a Boeing 747 in full flight!

Maybe those spider webs aren’t so nasty after all.

Tuesday, May 27, 2003

Daddy Longlegs—Are they Poisonous?

It is often said that Daddy Longlegs are the most poisonous spiders in existence. The lore regarding this bug continues to state that the only thing saving us is the fact that its fangs are too short to penetrate human skin. Is that True?

Actually, Daddy Longlegs is the name associated with more than one bug. There is a Daddy Longlegs, and then there is a Daddy Longlegs Spider. The bug most correctly called Daddy Longlegs is in the Order known as Opiliones. They are characterized by having one basic body segment, and all eight legs attach to the pill-like body segment. These insects do not have venom glands, fangs or any other mechanism for chemically subduing their food. Therefore, they do not have any poison.

Another creature often called Daddy Longlegs really is a spider. It belongs to the family, Pholcidae. There is no reference to any pholcid spider biting a human and causing any detrimental reaction. So the myth of them being especially poisonous is just that: a myth. There is no scientific basis for the supposition that they are deadly poisonous. As for the short fangs, it is true that they really are short, which in archaeological terms is called “uncate.” However, the Brown Recluse spiders also have an uncate fang structure, and they obviously are able to bite humans.

Sometimes, myths just seem to never end. The next time you see a Daddy Longlegs, don’t run in fear. You’re more likely to hurt yourself by tripping on a rock than you are to get hurt from the bite of his innocent little bug.

Monday, May 26, 2003

Do Tarantulas Bite?

Tarantulas are hairy and often very large spiders. They mainly eat insects using ambush as their primary method of prey capture. The mouth of a tarantula is a short straw-shaped opening than can only suck, meaning that anything taken into it must be in liquid form. Prey must be crushed and ground up or predigested, which is accomplished by coating the prey with digestive juices that are secreted from openings in the chelicerae. Although it has eyes, a tarantula’s sense of touch is its keenest sense and in hunting it primarily depends on vibrations given off by the movements of its prey.

Regardless of their fearsome reputation, tarantulas are eaten by a range of animals, including one particular family of wasps. Besides the normal hairs covering the body of tarantulas, some also have a dense covering of irritating hairs that they sometimes use as protection against enemies. Some people are extremely sensitive to theses hairs, and develop serious itching and rashes at the site. Tarantula hair has been used as the main ingredient in the novelty item, “itching powder.”

Tarantulas may live for years—most species taking 2 to 5 years to reach adulthood, but some species may take up to 10 years to reach full maturity. Upon reaching adulthood, male typically have but a 1 to 1.5 year period left to live.

The Goliath bird eater tarantula is considered a delicacy by the indigenous Piaroa of Venezuela. Fried tarantulas are also considered a delicacy in Cambodia.

Despite their often threatening appearance and reputation, none of the true tarantulas are known to have a bite which is deadly to humans. While bites by some species are known to be very painful, most tarantula bites are no worse than a wasp sting. Most Tarantulas are harmless to humans. Some species, while not known to have ever produced human fatalities, have venom that can produce extreme discomfort over a period of several days.

Sunday, May 25, 2003

Spiders--What Good Are They?

No matter where you find yourself, you are just a few feet from a spider. Spiders live everywhere, from the highest peaks to the lowest valleys; from the driest of deserts to the wettest of wet lands. Thankfully, there are more species of spiders than any other predator on earth.

Where would we be if there weren’t any of those fearful-looking spiders? Most likely, we’d all be dead.

Their enormous numbers (there can be millions of spiders on every acre of ground) make them the planet’s dominant predator. Spiders play a vital role in the life of humans the world over. The lowly spider is the ultimate exterminator; and his services don’t cost us a dime. They keep themselves busy eating insects that would otherwise be eating our crops before they get to the store shelves. Without those millions of hungry spiders, insect populations would increase unchecked and destroy all of our crops before we could have a chance to harvest them. If it wasn’t for spiders, the human population might starve to death within a matter of just a few months due to lack of food.

An additional benefit derived from nature’s eight-legged exterminator is disease control. Spiders prevent more disease than all of the doctors in the world put together. If it wasn’t for spiders, the human population would probably cease to exist due to a myriad of insect-borne diseases.

So next time you see a spider, think twice before stepping on him. Instead, you might consider getting down on your knees, shaking one of his eight feet and thanking him for saving your life. Without him and his brethren, you would probably be dead already.