Friday, 3 November 2017

From fear to fascination

You're thinking you've finally made it through Halloween/Samhain, and all that horrifying arachnological imagery has gone for another year? Maybe you should guess again...

Woooahh there... alright, hang on a sec. Sorry. Come back, please. I know it's not funny really.

I've had some very honest feedback about my spider-related posts, and a few apologies from people admitting to blocking / unfollowing me on social media. I have met ecologists and even a few entomologists who define themselves as being fully arachnophobic, so this is not a mightier-than-thou shout of 'why?!', rather a blogpost about your friendly neighbourhood critters and how we can look at them differently.

Honestly, this is a post more about people than spiders, and does not contain (much) spider imagery.

Oh look, there's a picture of a snake though...

Black Whip Snake, Cyprus (Dolichophis jugularis cypriacus
An adept predator of rats and entirely harmless to humans. Photo by George Konstantinou

The above image relates to my embarassing first encounter with a living, breathing snake in the wild. Around 25 year ago occurred an episode of heightened hysteria, high pitched screaming, running home to wail at my parents and make some fantastical claim about how I had just rescued my little brother and our friend from certain doom. (I was totally channeling those kids in Stranger Things, having witnessed a terrifying being which had emerged from the 'Upside Down'.) It was in fact an adult Cypriot Black Whipsnake, peacefully traversing along a storm drain. This snake is truly harmless and not dissimilar to our UK Grass Snake.

So there - the truth is out, I too was not immune from wildlife hysteria! Though for balance, we did live on a Mediterranean island in coexistence with a few rather venomous critters. (Since the online age, I've been able to identify to a few of my early childhood wildlife memories to species, with wonderful resources such as George Konstantinou's blog Biodiversity of Cyprus.)

What I've always wondered is whether my hysterical reaction was a learned response, picked up from my parents, other adults, kids, television or written fiction - or was it a hard-wired, involuntary reaction to what might in primitive times have been a genuine danger?

Gustave DorĂ©'s Arachne =  rather unhelpful spider imagery

Dick King Smith's children's story Charlotte's Web - a helpful (if anthropomorphising) spidery fiction
It is probably down to both. A newly published study from Germany supports the notion that might have a hard-wired response to potentially dangerous creatures, aka 'ancestral threats' (read the full paper here). The below graph is showing the heightened response in 6-month old infants when they were presented with an image of a spider compared to a flower. This suggests then that our extreme reaction to certain groups of wildlife is a sort of vestigial hangover, programmed into our psyches from the times and places us hominids existed in long ago. 

Hoehl S, Hellmer K, Johansson M and Gredebäck G (2017) Itsy Bitsy Spider…: Infants React with Increased Arousal to Spiders and Snakes. Front. Psychol. 8:1710. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01710

The interesting thing is how UK based folk will still illicit such negative reactions, with wildlife phobias being fairly prevalent in our country. I think we are pretty aware that we coexist with some of the most passive, benign wildlife on the planet, which is in part due to an awfully depleted species set, thanks to depressingly high rates of habitat loss and extinction.   

Zoological Society London's spider exhibit advert

The saddening thing (and something I too was guilty of as a child) is how we needlessly vilify organisms which are much smaller, more vulnerable and often entirely harmless to us. To what end do should we give in to our primordial fears? Violence begets violence and children who see their parents squash spiders may unconsciously become normalised to harming other living creatures, as if it is our given right to do so. 

All invertebrates, including insects, worms, molluscs, crustaceans and arachnids such as spiders, are essential to functioning ecosystems; they actually make up the majority of animal life on our planet. In simplistic terms, without invertebrates, food chains collapse and habitats will become depleted of plants and other wildlife. We currently live in period of time where almost the majority of species in the UK are declining, as outlined in the State of Nature report (below are some extracted infographics).

If you can truly only sympathise with the vetebrate species at this stage, then spare
 a thought for hedgehogs which depend on invertebrates for food

I do understand and have witnessed first-hand the crippling effect of phobias in action, how a reaction can make a person phsyically sick and even unable stand. That is incredibly debilitating and I can only sympathise.

However, if you are finally arriving at the point of realisation that a spider phobia is negatively impacting on your life (and the lives your loved ones), causing you to actively dread the autumnal season, then know that there is a way out!

Ashleigh Whiffin is an entomologist and assistant curator at National Museums Scotland

It has been reported that the ZSL Friendly Spider Programme with the London Zoological Society has over an 80% success rate of curing people from arachnophobia. I have met people from all over the UK who have completed this half-day course and they say how it has literally turned their lives around. The programme involves an element of hypnotherapy, and Ashleigh who is pictured above, went from being full-blown arachnophobe, to appreciating them in the same way she does the insects she works with.

Through the online world I meet people doing incredibly important work to change mindsets, public ignorance and negative perceptions. If you are not feeling quite ready to take that step to enter a programme, or perhaps you don't feel quite that badly about about spiders but are unsure of them, then instead you could take a look at some of the following...

You could become a member of the BAS ! 

The British Arachnological Society is the depository for all our data on British spider populations. You can join them to help support British spider research and recording, and attend fascinating talks and courses on spiders.

The tiny egg sac of Ero aphana, a pirate spider. Photo by Tone Killick

Tone Killick is the inspiration for this blogpost title, who's social media accounts provide beautiful imagery and insights into the lives of our UK spiders. Find him on twitter here @Tone_Killick and his facebook page The Silk Road

The British Spider Identification Groupfor those interested in learning more about our common UK species, is run by incredibly patient and helpful admins such as Jennie-Louise Cox and Gemma Gates. Steven Falk's Arachnida is an incredible photographic resource of spiders and their close relatives, and this blogpost by Graeme Lyons claims to show footage of the cutest UK jumping spider - can you argue with that?

Since going on courses in meditation and mindfulness, I have even struggled in specimen collecting. This is a highly important part of entomological work, as we cannot monitor wild populations and the state of nature without taking scientific samples for microscopic identification, so it is something I have to overcome. The conscious choice I make now is not to needlessly harm other beings, whether I find them beautiful or not.

In reality though, it is still hard to stop myself from slapping mosquitoes and louse flies.