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Spiders Move Back into the Museum of Natural History

Thursday, July 03, 2014

WNYC
A 40-foot-long model of the golden orb-web spider (Nephila pilipes)—a striking spider found in Asia and Australia—hangs above the Spiders Alive! exhibition. (Courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History)

Arachnids. A comforting term for a cringe-inducing group of critters that includes goliath bird-eaters, desert hairy scorpions, giant vinegaroons and metallic tarantulas.

They are also the subject of the SpidersAlive! exhibit, which returns for a second time to the American Museum of Natural History. The show features 20 different species of live arachnids from around the world as well as daily demonstrations, which allow visitors a chance to see the creatures up close.

Arachnologist Norman Platnick, the curator of the exhibit, said he expects visitors to be fearful of what lies behind the glass case. He even sympathizes with their fear — to an extent.

“I personally am afraid of snakes, but I regard that as a rational fear because about half of the snakes on this planet can actually hurt you," Platnick said. "Being afraid of spiders is not rational in that sense. Spiders are actually handsome, fascinating creatures that are actually beneficial to humans."

There are only two types of spiders common in the United States that can hurt someone: the black widow and the brown recluse. Both will be part of the demonstrations and audiences will learn how to identify them.

 

A wolf spider, one of the species on display. (Courtesy of the AMNH/R. Mickens).

As for those hairy tarantulas you had nightmares about as a kid? They will be there, too. It’s just that they’re not as scary as you think. John Fuentes, one of the presenters at the exhibit, explained that while tarantulas have a venomous bite, they rarely use it. “It takes a lot of energy to create and produce that venom, so spiders will always rather actually run away from anything rather than use that venom for anything other than catching their prey,” he said. 

Museum staff presents a Chilean rose hair tarantula. (Courtesy of the AMNH/D. Finnin).

 

Ivory ornamental tarantula. (Courtesy of the AMNH/R. Mickens).

The aim of the demonstrations is to show visitors how useful spiders are and how much we're still learning about them, Platnik said. Researchers study the neurological effects of spider venom for potential cures for diseases, such as epilepsy. Scientists are also trying to recreate spider silk, which is stronger than steel, yet far more flexible.

"If we could mass-produce materials that are as strong, yet as light weight as spider silk, we could revolutionize everything from parachutes to bullet proof vests” Platnick said. 

Spiders are also crucial for our ecosystem, he said, because spiders are the primary predators of insect pests. "If the spiders aren’t there, insect populations go through the roof," he said. "All our crops get eaten by the insects, because there’s nothing controlling their numbers and we have no food”.

Spiders Alive! opens July 4 at the American Museum of Natural History and runs until Nov. 2 .

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