biology zoology blog benno meyer rochow black widow

Little Monsters

No, not children; other little monsters

There won’t be many, I think, who remain totally untouched when they witness how devoted even creatures considered lowly and primitive can be to their offspring and bestow upon them an amazing amount of parental care. The rustic father Diplonychus waterbug, for example, burdens himself with the eggs, attached to his back by his “spouse”, and carries them to maturity. Or, to use another example from the insect world, think of the apparently far-sighted planning, constructing, and supplying of brood chambers in some dung or cadaver-consuming beetles.

Professor Gonzalo Halffter in Mexico has spent a lifetime studying the behaviour of these fascinating beetles and knows that in some species, which prepare underground nests and stock them with brood balls, one male and one female beetle collaborate in amazing harmony with each other, excavating the chamber and continuing to work together thereafter to prepare the food cakes. Species in which male and female beetles roll and bury brood balls so impressed ancient Egyptians with their industriousness that the humble dung rollers became the “holy scarabs”, in fact a deity.

But what when an outright dangerous arthropod seduces you with its charming mannerism? It happened to me after I caught a female Black Widow spider (also known as “Red Back spider or “Katipo”) and put it into a glass container. These spiders are not aggressive, but they can give you a very nasty, potentially even fatal bite. My spider started spinning a nest and then she laid her eggs, wrapped up in silk balls. Suspended under them protectively with absolutely no appetite for food, she guarded her egg cases, rarely ventured away from them and immediately re-arranged her nest when I turned the container upside down. I did that a few times to test the spider’s sense of gravity and knowledge of her nest surroundings under illuminated and dark conditions.

The problem arrived when some 60 spiderlings hatched. Like pinkish little babies or toddlers, they stumbled around on the “ropes” of the maternal nest, attaching to it their own thin and feeble live-lines of silk here and there. Mother Black Widow possessed all the patience of a good mum and allowed her brood to clamber all over her, only trying to discipline them and calling them back to the centre of her nest when I tapped the container and danger seemed imminent. They were so cute to watch: the kindergarten of eight-legged monsters in a bottle. But what to do? My wife, someone who really respects all kind of animal life, reminded me that we had two babies ourselves and that poisonous spiders and little humans were not a good mix. We clearly had a dilemma: having taken the spiders into my house and given them “a home”, having been entertained and amused by them, did I not have a responsibility towards them to set them free? Are we humans according to philosopher Martin Heidegger not the guardians of Nature and her many creatures? When a few days later Mother Black Widow succumbed to old age and the little orphans were ready to leave the nest, I had to do something. Can you guess what I did?

© Dr V.B. Meyer-Rochow and, 2019.
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