Saturday, April 12, 2008

Spider bondage

At the NYRB (subscriber only), Tim Flannery considers the juicy parts of Paul Hillyard's The Private Life of Spiders:
The sex life of spiders is of course infamous: almost everyone has heard of the female black widow, which consumes her mate after sex. But who would have guessed that "bondage, rape, chastity belts, castration, and suicide" were also part of the sexual practices of spiders? Hillyard gives detailed examples of all of these practices, and his description of spider bondage is particularly intriguing:
The male European crab spider... approaches tentatively but, when close to the female, grabs one of her legs. Initially she struggles but later calms down as he moves over her body trailing silk threads, which bind her to the ground. He then lifts her abdomen, crawls under and inserts his palps [the organs that carry his sperm]. However, this bondage appears to be purely ritualistic because it is not difficult for the female to break free: it is likely that it helps to pacify her.
More touchingly, mother spiders also practice self-sacrifice. Australian crab spiders of the genus Diaea lay a single cocoon full of eggs (most spiders lay many more eggs), which they tend carefully. When the young hatch the mother spider feeds them with insects she has caught herself, until winter brings an end to easy prey. Then, unable to nurture them further, she offers them one last meal: herself.

Even the moderate arachnophobe may wish to avoid Hillyard's chapter "Tarantulas and Trapdoor Spiders." By way of introduction he says:
Called tarantulas in the Americas, bird-eating spiders, mygales or Vogelspinnen in Europe, baboon spiders in Africa, earth tigers in southeast Asia, mata-caballos (horse-killers) or araños peludas (hairy spiders) in Latin America, these are the large, well-built members of the family Theraphosidae. They have heavy jaws projecting forwards and they rival in size the biggest land invertebrates.
These are the spiders of nightmares, and extraordinarily large close-up photographs of these formidable creatures adorn every page.

Until recently the goliath tarantula of Amazonia was believed to be the largest spider on earth. Then someone collected an enormous spider in the remote rain forests of southeastern Peru. Its body was almost four inches long, and its legs spanned almost ten inches. It is said by those familiar with these near-mythical beasts that up to fifty share a single burrow, and that they cooperate in the hunt. Hillyard's clinical description of this new and as yet unnamed discovery (though it has been called araños pollo, chicken spider) has embedded within it the stuff of nightmares. I can imagine the scientist intent on studying them struggling through precipitous country and an endless tangle of roots, vines, and thickets as he forces his way toward their habitat. And then, in a sudden silence, he hears the drumming of countless hairy legs on dried leaves as the colony erupts from their abode. Though just how the spiders "cooperate in prey capture to overcome larger animals" is perhaps best left unimagined.

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