Queens of the Web

For some readers, the books under review may be a cause of anxiety and alarm. Arachnophobia, Paul Hillyard tells us in The Private Life of Spiders, “is the most prevalent of all animal phobias.” Such intense fear of spiders can afflict almost anybody, and can become so extreme that one sufferer confessed that he “couldn’t even write the word spider,” or “go into a room until someone else had checked that there were no spiders inside.” Snakes can set off a similar reaction, and it’s the vivid descriptions and hundreds of close-up color photographs of legless and eight-legged creatures that may put off some readers. Yet I wish that they could overcome their irrational fears, for the phobic are deprived of the pleasure of contemplating nature’s foremost living gems.

Before his retirement Paul Hillyard was the curator of spiders at the Natural History Museum, London. I have known a few spider curators in my time, and they can on occasion be troublesome. For more than fifteen years I was the curator of mammals at the Australian Museum in Sydney, and my office was located between that of the nation’s foremost snake expert and the museum’s curator of spiders. Accidents do happen in museums, and I have on occasion found myself sitting at my desk not suspecting that a live snake lurked in my filing cabinet. Yet it was the rather eccentric habits of the curator of spiders that most unnerved me. I don’t count myself as a great arachnophobe, but on occasion, when dashing out of my office door on some urgent errand and bumping into the curator, whose hands were full of deadly Sydney funnel-web spiders, I admit to being discomforted.

He was a delightful fellow to be sure—bearded, gentle, and erudite—but I dreaded visiting his office, for aquariums containing live spiders had been crammed into every corner, and the walkways between them were so narrow that the room seemed transformed into a den of oversized, hairy-legged monstrosities. Worst of all, he was so fond of his charges that whenever I crossed his threshold he would invariably reach into an aquarium and enthusiastically wave his latest acquisition in my face.

Hillyard is a true spider devotee, and he cheerfully informs us that there is no escape from his subject, for our world boasts 38,000 named species of spiders, and perhaps as many again await formal description. Spider curators don’t have to look far to find their charges, for spiders are ubiquitous. In the 1930s the arachnologist W.S. Bristowe calculated that over two million spiders lurked in every acre of flower-filled meadow in England’s southeast, and that Britain’s spiders then consumed annually a bulk of insects that exceeded the total weight of the country’s human population. Today, human population growth and the use of insecticides have doubtless altered this impressive equation, but the basic fact prevails that spiders can be found almost everywhere. The Private Life of Spiders is a stroll through their largely hidden world, highlighting the most…

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