Eight Legs

Hairy and Scary, Spiders May
Still Teach Us a Thing or Two

We’re afraid of them. We wouldn’t be able to fall asleep in a room we knew there’s one lurking somewhere. But we can’t take our eyes out of them.
Which, by the way, is not recommended when it comes to tarantulas. But even the most lethally poisonous spider has much to contribute to our lives, scientists are finding.
For example, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London opens today the world’s largest collection of cloths from silk extracted from spiders.
You probably already knew that this material is superior in strength to regular silk, but did you know how stunningly beautiful it is?
In the meantime, researchers in Singapore have discovered that the same species has developed a clever defensive alkaloid chemical, with which it doses its webs and ward off invading armies of ants.
Want more? What about spider venom to treat erectile dysfunction? That’s what a team of physiologists in Georgia is developing, in hopes to one day offer gentler but equally effective alternatives to Viagra.
The warning about tarantula hairs still stands though, as they can cause serious ocular inflammation. But we consider that, at such proximity with them, we may as well be dead. Moving on.

The V&A collection used over a million female golden orb-weaver spiders from the highlands of Madagascar, for the exquisitely embroidered and astoundingly light-textured pieces of cloth on display.
Countering such a pomp and ceremony, though, is the fact that the Golden Silk Spider is also known as the Banana Spider or the Giant Wood Spider.
It certainly gives the mystic of such remarkable creatures a certain informality. Not known for being aggressive, they do look imposing. And beautiful too, no two ways about it.
It’s just a coincidence that another team of international researchers were also observing the same species for a completely different purpose.
What they found out shows that, through evolution, these spiders developed a very effective way of fighting a formidable and feared enemy, ants. They put a chemical on the webs that ants seem to hate.
To keep these other crawlers away from their turf is no small accomplishment, since spiders and even their webs have both high nutritional value for most forest creatures, ants included.
In fact, they’re a fearsome bunch, ever on the move and always in search of prey. But for now, at least, which means, a few million years, the silk masters are left alone to do their thing.

The Brazilian Wandering Spider is also a fearsome little critter. A highly venomous spider, its bite can cause excruciating pain and inflammation due to a powerful neurotoxin.
As it progresses, it causes loss of muscle control, affecting breathing and leading to paralysis and eventually asphyxiation. In other words, it’s no bedroom pet.
But, there’s one effect caused by the spider’s bite that may not be so bad, and not for what you may think. Along with everything else, the venom also causes priapism. That’s right, a four-hour, terribly timed erection.
So researchers are hoping to develop an alternative to the current prescription for erectile disfunction, which doesn’t work for everyone. But it may take sometime until a product made from the spider venom reaches the market.
In the meantime, stay away from them. As its name indicates, the species wanders through the forest floor searching for prey, so it’s hard to predict where you’ll come across and be bitten by one.
No need to say that the only thing such detail arouses in us is the hair in the back of our neck.

One of the most interesting things about spiders is the fact that the big, hairy ones are not usually the most dangerous. The many species of tarantulas, for example, can be beautiful, caring mothers and ideal pets.
Two things they are not, though: they don’t make webs and are not poisonous. Or rather, their bite has not much of an effect on humans. But they do have a natural mechanism that reacts when under stress: they shed their hairs.
Whenever in danger, or in the presence of aggressive humans, they burst their back sides in explosions of tiny, highly irritative hairs that can cause serious inflammation in the eyes.
Recent research has also found that the hairs may be behind an increase in chronic panuveitis, an ailment of the ocular globe. And the reason is that they have become popular pets for a certain demographics (not us, we swear).
For all the lore, they’re gentle and beautiful creatures, we must insist. But for those who would much prefer to have them crawling on their face, as pet owners like to do (brrrrr), caution is being advised.
According to the Improbable Research site, a case study even required a delicate surgical procedure called vitrectomy, when the vitreous (transparent gel that fills the eye from the iris to the retina) is removed.

As with the tarantula and its misleading fame, the procedure worked just fine and in six months, the patient was cured. He may have taken steps, though, to prevent his lovely pet from ever crawl upon his face again.
A step that we, of course, would have taken years before even considering having a tarantula as a pet. But that’s just us; we’re skittish that way.

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