Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Man's new best friend

Please, don't squish that spider



Most ecologists talk about saving the world's wildlife from the animals' perspective, which is a public relations mistake. Humans — one of the most wildly successful species of the Cenozoic era , which began about 65 million years ago — have trouble empathizing with polar bears, tropical frogs and dolphins as those animals sink toward extinction. A better way is to appeal to a human's unstoppable desire to forward his own self-interest. This is how Norman Platnick talks about spider conservation.

Related News/Archive

"If spiders disappeared, we would face famine," says Platnick, who studies arachnids at New York's American Museum of Natural History, where a live spider exhibit debuted this month. "Spiders are primary controllers of insects. Without spiders, all of our crops would be consumed by those pests."

Using the word "famine" is a good way to get an otherwise indifferent person's attention. Although the magnitude of the insect apocalypse that would occur without spiders is not clear, the importance of spiders to agriculture certainly is. Predation and chemical control are the only ways to limit herbivorous pests, because there's so much food available to them in our amber waves of grain.

Spiders are excellent at this task. And there are many of them prepared to apply themselves. A 1990 study found 614 species of spiders in U.S. croplands, representing 19 percent of the spider species in North America. Spiders are particularly crucial in organic farming, which relies heavily on biological pest control.

There's more to spider conservation than crop protection, though. How much more? No one really knows.

You rarely see former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld quoted in a column about conservation, but one of his more famous lines is relevant here. "There are known knowns; there are things that we know that we know," Rumsfeld said in 2002. "We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don't know we don't know." This is why you should care about spiders, in a nutshell. (Go with me on this.)

Crop protection is the known known. We know that spiders are important, and we know how and why. Now for the known unknowns: A spider's venom contains hundreds, or even thousands, of different chemical compounds. We know they exist, but we don't know if they might be useful to humans. Some of them may be medically active.

Researchers are testing many of these chemicals. Scientists at Yale, for example, are examining whether chemicals in the venom of the Australian funnel-web spider could be used to improve pain-control medications.

This is just one of the possibilities. A physiologist at the University of Buffalo is trying to heal muscular dystrophy patients with a compound in the venom of a South American spider. Venom from scorpions — which are related to spiders — could help identify brain tumors. A Seattle scientist named Jim Olson is pursuing that project. The list grows every year.

There are more known unknowns. In addition to the chemicals in their venom, spiders produce compounds in their silks that might have important applications. Spider silk has a higher strength-to-density ratio than steel. Its components could one day be put to use in such varied products as airplanes, bulletproof vests, surgical threads and prostheses.

That brings us to the unknown unknowns: the thousands upon thousands of undiscovered chemicals in the venom of currently unidentified spider species. "Scientists have identified almost 45,000 different spider species," says Platnick, "and that's at best one-half of what actually exists. When we lose a spider species, we may lose a compound that could have cured epilepsy. We may lose a silk that could have produced a strong and lightweight material."

Although some spiders have been captured to near-extinction by hobbyists, habitat loss and fragmentation of habitat are by far the greatest threat to spiders. Platnick likens our destruction of spider habitat to tinkering with a plane's engine while in flight. I'd suggest it's even worse than that: We don't fully understand how the engine works, and there are parts we haven't even seen yet.

Please, don't squish that spider 07/23/14 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 23, 2014 5:29pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

Copyright: For copyright information, please check with the distributor of this item, Washington Post.

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Yale dean on leave over offensive Yelp reviews leaves post

    Bizarre News

    NEW HAVEN, Conn. — A Yale University dean who was placed on leave over offensive reviews she posted on Yelp has left her position at the Ivy League institution, school officials said Tuesday.

  2. Federal agencies demand records from SeaWorld theme park


    ORLANDO — Two federal agencies are reportedly demanding financial records from SeaWorld.

    Killer whales Ikaika and Corky participate in behaviors commonly done in the wild during SeaWorld's Killer Whale educational presentation in this photo from Jan. 9. SeaWorld has been subpoenaed by two federal agencies for comments that executives and the company made in August 2014 about the impact from the "Blackfish" documentary. 
[Nelvin C. Cepeda/San Diego Union-Tribune/TNS]
  3. The people you meet along O.J. Howard Lane


    AUTAUGAVILLE, Ala. —The screen door hangs open to Laura's Country Kitchen but the dining room is empty with no one to feed.

    OJ Howard (far right) is seen in a photo from his adolescent years at Bethesda Missionary Baptist Church in Prattville, Ala., on Wednesday, May 3, 2017. Howard served as an usher in addition to attending regular services at this church.
  4. St. Pete Pride schedule and live blog

    Special Topics

    St. Pete Pride Block Party and Night Parade: St. Pete Pride's popular parade moves to downtown St. Petersburg's scenic waterfront. The block party brings DJs, food and drinks starting at 2 p.m. The parade steps off at Fifth Ave NE and Bayshore at 7 p.m. with fireworks at 9:45 p.m. 2 p.m., North Straub Park, Fifth Avenue …

    A local business rings in Pride 2017 with some window decorations.