Evil invertebrate vs. good vertebrate: who you got?

The BBC has a report that the squeamish will find most disturbing: Invertebrates such as spiders and centipedes feasting on vertebrates, including birds, snakes and turtles.

Among incidents included in the story: A tarantula eating 15-inch snake that it had apparently subdued and killed last year in Brazil; a dragonfly catching a hummingbird in midair and eating it in 1977 in Canada; and Scolopendra centipedes, which regularly scales walls to either grab bats as they swoop past or pluck them from roosts while they sleep. The centipedes also eat birds, mice, lizards, frogs and snakes.

Even animal lovers can find this sort of behavior unnerving – after all, vertebrates typically eat invertebrates, not the other way around.

“Most of us are happy to watch vertebrates hunting vertebrates; if lions kill a giraffe, we might feel sadness but not revulsion, and we cheer when the baby iguana escapes the racer snakes. Similarly, if a vertebrate hunts an invertebrate, that seems normal: an early bird catching the worm is simply being enterprising,” according to the BBC. “But invertebrates eating vertebrates is another matter. We find ourselves horrified by crabs preying on baby turtles, wasps targeting nestling birds, or a giant centipede munching on a bat. Somehow it seems wrong, as if the natural order has been turned on its head – but why?”

The BBC surmises that the reason may be that we instinctively recognize that we are much more akin to other vertebrates than we are to invertebrates.

“We might not use the word “vertebrate,” but a dog is clearly more similar to us than a giant centipede,” it writes. “Not only does the dog have hair and the same number of limbs, it also behaves in understandable ways, displaying familiar emotions like happiness and anger.

“ … we cannot understand invertebrates in the same way that we understand dogs, lions or eagles,” the BBC added. “They are just too alien, their behavior too strange and their bodies too dissimilar. They do not have waggy tails and their eyes are never big and soulful.”

Or, as one of my daughter said when I asked why she didn’t like spiders: “Too many eyes, too many legs!”

If you’ve ever seen a frog swarmed over and stung to death by fire ants, or a lizard being stung repeatedly by a hornet, it does appear that things sometimes go amiss in the animal kingdom.

And while Scolopendra gigantea, also known as the Amazonian giant centipede, has yet to make its way to the US from South America, that’s one creepy-crawly I can foresee showing up in my nightmares.

(Top: I chose an image of a pug eating a sprinkled donut for this story because, well, the other photos, while interesting, would have undoubtedly upset lovers of baby turtles, small birds and other cute animals which happened to have fallen into the clutches of voracious invertebrates.)

Spiders: Even ‘bug people’ don’t like them


How afraid are folks of spiders? According to a survey done by a University of California at Riverside professor, even some people who study insects are petrified of the eight-legged arthropods.

Professor Richard Vetter recently looked into the prevalence of arachnophobia in entomologists – individuals who work with bugs regularly.

According to a report of Vetter’s study published in American Entomologist, Vetter surveyed 41 self-described arachnophobic entomologists and found that they react differently to spiders than to insects, with some stating that they react to spiders in an almost debilitating manner.

Some of the arachnophobic entomologists said their fear developed in childhood, well before making the choice to pursue a career in entomology, according to the website RedOrbit.

“The results of the study show that arachno-adverse entomologists share with arachnophobes in the general public both the development of response and the dislike of many of the behavioral, physical, and aesthetic aspects of spiders,” said Vetter, an entomologist himself.

“Paradoxically, I found that despite the great morphological diversity that insects exhibit and despite years of professional exposure to insects, these entomologists do not assimilate spiders into the broad arthropod morphological scheme,” he continued. “However, for the most part these entomologists realized that their feelings could not be rationally explained.”

The article also revealed several amusing arachnophobia-related anecdotes, including some from respondents that regularly work with maggots and other creatures that most people would consider extremely unappealing.

“I would rather pick up a handful of maggots than have to get close enough to a spider to kill it,” one respondent told Vetter.

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New species of huge spider found in Asia

Poecilotheria rajaei

Arachnophobes beware: an enormous, previously unknown species of spider as big as a human’s face and described as “fast and venomous” has been discovered in Asia.

Giant tarantulas with legs that span eight inches have been found in a remote village in Sri Lanka.

The spiders, which also have unusual yellow markings on their legs and a pink band around their bodies, were found living in the old doctor’s quarters of a hospital in the war-torn northern Sri Lankan province of Mankulam by scientists from Sri Lanka’s Biodiversity Education and Research organization.

The spiders belong to the genus Poecilotheria, an arboreal group indigenous to India and Sri Lanka that are known for being colorful, fast and venomous, according to the website wired.co.uk.

“As a group, the spiders are related to a class of South American tarantula that includes the Goliath bird-eater, the world’s largest,” it added.

The giant arachnids have been named Poecilotheria rajaei, in honor of Michael Rajakumar Purajah, a senior police official who led the research team through a hazardous stretch of jungle ravaged by civil unrest, according to The Telegraph.

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Golden garments from spider silk on display

Now here’s a unique fashion statement: Simon Peers and Nicholas Godley spent eight years creating a shawl and cape made from the saffron-colored silk of Golden Orb-Weaver spiders.

Perhaps not the clothing choice for one suffering from arachnophobia.

One of the pieces is a 12-feet long hand-woven textile, made from the silk of more than one million female Golden-Orb Weaver spiders collected in the highlands of Madagascar by 80 people over five years, according to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

The garments are so unusual that their place is in a museum, not on a fashion catwalk.

They went on display late last month at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, part of an exhibition that retraces the history of spider-silk production through books, illustrations and photographs.

Using spider silk to manufacture clothing dates from the early 18th century, when textile producers began hunting for an alternative to the mulberry silkworm, according to The Economist.

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