[Exhibition Review] They’re Clever and Carnivorous

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The American Museum of Natural History’s ‘Spiders Alive!’ exhibit runs through Dec. 2 in New York City.

September 28, 2012

Girl Scouts get a close experience with an exhibit in the “Spiders Alive!” show, which features larger-than-life models of spiders, including a climbable spider model that is 50 times life size. (Photo: Richard Perry/The New York Times)

“Should you worry?” we are asked again and again as we are lured into the web of a thoroughly engrossing new exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History. No, of course not, we are assured, over and over: “My venom isn’t likely to cause a deep wound.” “My bite tends to have only mild effects.” “Only if you are an insect or maybe a small fish.” But here and there, a warning: “My fangs are small, but my venom is potent.”

Ah, spiders. You may enter this show, “Spiders Alive!,” a full-fledged arachnophobe, but you are encouraged to emerge an arachnophile — or at least an admirer. Less than 1 percent of the world’s 43,000 spider species have venom dangerous to humans. And spiders, we read, “are among the most successful animals on the planet. At home everywhere from deserts to rain forests to crowded cities, they inhabit every continent but Antarctica.”

But if spiders still strike you as fearsome, consider the alternative: We learn that in an acre of woodland, spiders might consume more than 80 pounds of insects a year. Which option — a group of spiders or an overweight suitcase of crawling and flying bugs — is less appealing?

Spend some time at this exhibition even if you don’t reach the point of wanting to devote your life to studying these eight-legged, carnivorous, bifurcated, silk-spinning creatures, as has the exhibition’s curator, Norman Platnick of the museum’s Division of Invertebrate Zoology. You will be amazed at nature’s fantastical imagination and evolutionary inventiveness in shaping such arachnids.

“Spiders Alive!” runs through Dec. 2 at the American Museum of Natural History, Central Park West at 79th Street; New York City; 212/769-5200, www.amnh.org.

The exhibit features about 20 species of live spiders and highlights their anatomy, behavior and unique characteristics. The museum, which has the world’s largest research collection of spiders, has been at the forefront of studying spider diversity for more than 75 years.

“Spiders Alive! represents a new type of exhibition for the Museum,” said Norman Platnick, curator emeritus in the Division of Invertebrate Zoology and curator of Spiders Alive!. “In addition to using a wide range of live arachnids — including scorpions, tarantulas and orb-weavers — viewers will be able to interact directly with explainers, museum staff and volunteers who will highlight some of the fascinating aspects of the structure and behavior of these diverse organisms in a regularly scheduled program of live demonstrations. This exhibition also gives us a chance to showcase some of our recent research, both in the field and in the lab.”

There are fishing spiders that rest their forelegs on the surfaces of ponds, ready to sense vibrations of potential prey, using surface tension as if it were a liquid web. There are spiders that weave their silk into a kind of net that is not passively erected, but deliberately dropped on victims. Some tarantulas use their hind legs to flick sharp hairs from their abdomen as a form of defense. “The tiny projectiles,” we read, “are irritating to humans and can be fatal to small predators if inhaled.”

The Giant vinegarroon lives up to its name by shooting a vinegar-smelling spray from its abdomen. Trapdoor spiders burrow into the ground, their flat, plated rear end seeming to seal the hole, so their predators don’t suspect a potential meal below. This doesn’t even begin to suggest spiders’ sex lives, in which pedipalps — leglike appendages on males — play a central role.

“Want to be scared by spiders?” we are asked. “Go to a horror movie. Want to be awed? Get up close and personal with the real thing.”

That is what happens here; many of these spiders are indeed alive. Yes, there are stage atmospherics, which the museum has down to a science — the lighted outline of an orb web on the floor, for example, or a sculptured female golden orb-web spider, 70 times life size, mounted on the ceiling. And there are text panels with often remarkable details. (“Spiders can give up a leg to escape a predator. A young spider is often able to grow the limb back.”) But the real sensations are these creatures, some 20 of which are nestled in the underbrush of glass display cases.

The most dangerous are sure to draw the most attention. Next to displays of live (and poisonous) black widows, we see another case (glassed in as well) of the medicinal antidote to their neurotoxin-laden venom: Latrodectus mactans (“black widow spider antivenin”).

And don’t miss the hyperactive brown recluse, with a violin-shaped mark on its head and a tendency to emerge swiftly from dark, hidden spaces. In South America, we learn, it is called “la araña detrás de los cuadros” (“the spider behind the pictures on the wall”). Its venom can cause a “deep wound that takes weeks or even months to heal” — the price paid for not giving enough attention to hanging an artwork.

Taking a cue from science centers around the country, the museum has introduced live demonstrations into the exhibition. Spiders and tarantulas are shown to the visitors by their handlers, with the creatures’s follicles, multiple eyes, forceps-fangs, segmented bodies and spinnerets magnified on a video screen. No touching of these specimens is allowed, but scorpions mounted in acrylic, and spiders, more anciently embalmed in amber, are passed around.

But the most amazing artifacts at the show may not be the live organisms that the handlers display but their shedded skins — exoskeletons that are regularly molted during growth and astonishingly preserve the geometry of the spider with all its limbs in one unbroken piece, an eerie mixture of fragile delicacy and uncommon creepiness.

The Mexican red knee (Brachypelma smithi) is a tarantula that lives mainly on the Pacific coast of Mexico. It resides in burrows, hurrying out to prey on insects, small frogs, lizards and mice. (Photo: American Museum of Natural History/R. Mickens)

In an interview, Mr. Platnick said he believed that a spider exhibition should be a permanent part of the museum, which holds over a million specimens in its collection (“the largest anywhere,” the show notes). But though temporary, this exhibition is fast-paced and tantalizing. And lest you think that the only spiders with some appeal are the grand venomous examples, Mr. Platnick’s own research specialty is the family Oonopidae (goblin spiders, which are less than a 10th of an inch long). He leads a Planetary Biodiversity Inventory project at the museum, which has assembled 45 arachnologists in 12 countries to catalog the family. In 2006, 459 species were known; that number has more than doubled and is expected to double again. Some of the most astonishing images at this show are electron microscope scans of the fangs and spinnerets of these tiny creatures, organic sculptures of elaborate complexity.

But that is one of the unusual aspects of this exhibition. Fear decreases with familiarity, but wonder increases. The more you learn, the more uncanny spiders become (and the show falls short only in not providing as many evolutionary and anatomical details as it might have). Watch the videos here of spiders in mating dances, or carrying egg sacks, or spinning webs, and you can’t quite reconcile the intricacy of these activities with the creatures’ size and seeming crudity. Spiders spin silks of differing characteristics to suit the web architecture.

“Even tiny spiders can build and repair complex webs,” we read. “How does an animal the size of a freckle have that ability? The answer may lie in the large size of its central nervous system relative to its body. In some species, the central nervous system occupies much of the spider’s front half and has even invaded space in the first segment of the legs!”

But it isn’t just the complexity of their abilities that startles. To the innocent observer, insects seem quite different in character: they display an amazing diversity in appearance and abilities. Spiders, though, which evolved more than 300 million years ago as part of the arachnid class, seem to display unusual visual coherence, despite their evolutionary age and variations in size, coloration and appendages.

This makes it seem as if variation were literally a form of strategy, as if the same organism were conceiving of elaborately different entrapments for its prey. Bolas spiders, for example, lure male moths into their grasp by creating a suspended ball of sticky silk with chemical properties that mimic female moths. Some “pirate” spiders vibrate other spiders’ webs to imitate caught insects, attracting the webs’ creators, who are then swiftly attacked. And of course there is outright disguise: African dark-footed ant spiders look and act like ants. Some female Bolas spiders look like bird droppings.

Gooty sapphire ornamental (Poecilotheria metallica) tarantulas are as colorful as tropical birds. (Photo: American Museum of Natural History\R. Mickens)

At any rate, in human mythology, spiders are granted a consciousness far beyond that of insects or fish. They are tricksters, persuaders, weavers. They are wily configurations of hair and bone, mixing delicacy and fierceness. Sometimes they are given an almost tragic charm (as in E. B. White’s “Charlotte’s Web,” for which, we learn, the author consulted with an expert at the museum), but elsewhere they are not to be trusted, and their powers remain dark and mysterious.

So while fear dissolves in this exhibition, other reactions to spiders grow. It may not even be possible to exorcise the more primal sense of horror.


From The New York Times, July 27, 2012, © The New York Times. All rights reserved. Used with permission and protected by the Copyright Laws of the United States. The printing, copying, redistribution or retransmission of this content without express written permission is prohibited.