Princess Charlotte Likes Them

And I like that she likes them (Spiders!) 

Princess Charlotte was five years old when in 2020 she asked Sir David Attenborough if he liked spiders. I never met her or her lovely parents Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, but I had met her great-grandmother Queen Elizabeth II. at a luncheon at the University of the West Indies and she, too, had some interesting questions like what I had been doing in Antarctica. Anyway, Princess Charlotte likes spiders and that delighted Sir David. And actually, why don’t more people like spiders? According to Oxford University Professor Fritz Vollrath it’s puzzling that not everybody wants to work with spiders, a view that probably my grandfather would have shared, for this grandfather of mine often led me to the local church (but never set foot in it), so that he could show me the spiders whose homes were in the cracks of the church’s brickwork and whose webs covered the bushes around the church. 

Anyway, what’s so special about spiders? Sir David would probably mention that they’ve been around virtually unchanged for millions of years (those embedded in age-old amber look no different from spiders today) and their conservative anatomy with eight legs, book lungs and/or trachea, 6 or 8 single lens eyes and an ability to produce silk has served them well. Prof. Vollrath would marvel at the incredible physical properties of the spiders’ silk and how from a tiny amount of liquid in a spider’s abdomen you could extract an amount of silk fibres to cover a football field with. Princess Charlotte might find the way an orb web spider catches a fly, wraps it in silk and pulls it to the centre of the web fascinating. And then there are some like Professor Barth and others, who are amazed at the spiders’ incredible sensitivity to vibrations, or their ability to see and to detect polarized light, their speed, their venom, the ecological niches they have been able to colonize and their behaviour. The latter includes an astonishing and mind-boggling variety of male/female positions during mating.

Lots of humans seem not satisfied with just one sexual position, but sometimes want to explore other, often less comfortable, variations (the Indian love-making recipe book “The Kamasutra” comes to mind). However, much can be learnt in this field by studying how spiders do “it”. The problem with spiders is twofold: almost always the male is considerable smaller than the female he needs to approach to hand over his sperm. “Hand over” is an appropriate term, for the males do not have penises but need to fill a little bulb on a pair of feeler-like appendages (known as the pedipalps) on their head near the oral cavity with sperm from their abdominal genital opening. Once the bulb on the pedipalp contains the sperm, it needs to be transported and injected into the female’s genital opening. For most spider males that is the hardest part of the mating procedure. No wonder therefore that before a male dares to approach a female, the male (depending on the species) performs certain rituals: male jumping spiders dance, male orb weavers carefully send messages along the silk strands before they advance, in some crab spiders males hand over a nuptial present and (not trusting their females fully) tie down the female with some silk to symbolically restrain her.

But then the mating commences. There are species that mate head-to-head; in others the male creeps under the female, its head pointing towards the female’s abdomen; sometimes the female turns on her back or raises her body and stands on her tippy toes; a sideways approach is seen in some species. Incidentally, the techniques to procure food are just as varied: there are species that pounce on the prey, pursue prey, ambush it, attract it with pheromone as in the bolas spider, use trap-doors, sheet or orb webs, cast a tiny web over unsuspecting prey as Dinopis does, or spit sticky fluid over prey; even diving after prey as in Dolomedes or stealing what other species have caught (as in kleptoparasitic species) occurs. But what unites them all is the possession of silk glands on one end of their body and a venomous bite on the other end (the front). That they pre-digest their food outside their bodies has already been mentioned in an earlier blog and that Princess Charlotte, Sir David and Prof. Vollrath are correct to find spiders fantastic, should now be clear to everyone, I think.

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