Illustration of the author approaching a spider
Illustration of the author approaching a spider
If I could bird-watch, why couldn’t I spider-watch. too? (Illustration: Eren Wilson)

Keep Your Bird-Watching—I’m a Spider Man

Some of you are thinking, Ewww, no way. But open your hearts to the truth: spiders are among the most fascinating creatures on earth, and great neighbors to boot (goodbye, mosquitos!). With climate change putting them in danger, they could use a few new friends.

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My first spider—the one that started all this—was black, with a head like a garden shovel’s blade and eight beady eyes that all but disappeared against the velvet of its upper body. At the end of its abdomen, two fat spinnerets poked out like the notched tail of a fish; on its back, a cream-colored strip stood in contrast to the black. As spiders go, it was unremarkable. And as I watched it scuttle across the carpeted floor of my in-laws’ basement, I had no idea that it was about to send me down the deepest rabbit hole of my life.

It was September 2021, and I was having some trouble adjusting. My wife, our one-year-old son, and I had temporarily relocated from Colorado to her parents’ house in Lincoln, Nebraska, after my wife’s mother was diagnosed with cancer. I occupied my free time as best I could, but within a couple of months I had hiked all of the few local trails. After a decade in the Front Range, where I could explore somewhere different every week, it felt claustrophobic.

In need of a new, Midwest-friendly way to get outside, I decided to try birding. I spent hours watching my in-laws’ bird feeders through binoculars, jotting down sightings of house finches and northern flickers. But when I tried to branch out and cover more ground, I ran into a roadblock: my toddler son, who came along on most of my outdoor adventures and was constitutionally incapable of sitting still. On our first trip to a local wildlife refuge, I raised binocs to my face and immediately heard him beating feet down the trail. After spending 30 minutes trying in vain to corral the giggling imp, I gave up and headed home.

One night after putting him to bed, I was sitting on the couch when I spotted something dark moving across the off-white carpet: that little black spider. Inside my brain, something clicked. There were spiders living inside the house. If I could bird-watch, why couldn’t I spider-watch, too? Ignoring the crawling sensation on my skin, I took out my phone, got down on my hands and knees, and snapped a photo.

I put the image into a bug-ID app I’d downloaded, and it spit out a name: Herpyllus ecclesiasticus. The eastern parson spider, named for the way the white patch on its black abdomen resembles a clerical collar. Unlike web-spinning spiders, the app told me, the eastern parson spider was a hunter, a nocturnal prowler that emerged from its hiding place to stalk its prey.

I had probably seen this spider a hundred times and never bothered to notice it. Now, as I watched it crawl away, I thought it had a kind of predatory beauty: the way the bristles on its back shined in the light, the way its pedipalps  flicked back and forth, feeling some vibration or tasting some pheromone I couldn’t sense.

What else, I wondered, called this basement home?

An Apache jumping spider (Phidippus apacheanus). Location: North Table Mountain Park, Golden, Colorado.
An Apache jumping spider (Phidippus apacheanus). Location: North Table Mountain Park, Golden, Colorado. (Adam Roy)

“It always seems to me that the lives of certain insects are more like plays than reality… But of all the plays now running, I am inclined to think that the one produced by spiders is the best,” writes naturalist John Crompton in the preface to his 1950 book The Spider. “It has almost everything the modern audience wants: love interest, suspense, psychology, battle, murder, and sudden death.”

If anyone would have understood my sudden turn to arachnophilia, it’s Crompton. As David Quammen writes in the introduction to a 1987 reprint of Compton’s book, we know relatively little about the life of this fascinating Englishman. Born as John Battersby Crompton Lamburn in 1893, he spent 19 years as a functionary in Britain’s colonial machinery, first as an officer with the British South Africa Police in what is now Zimbabwe, then as a shipping inspector in China. In 1932, he returned to Britain, where, with the exception of a three-year stint in Iceland with the Royal Air Force during World War II, he seems to have devoted the remainder of his life to writing novels and natural-history books.

Crompton wasn’t a scientist, and it shows in The Spider. While his science is mostly solid, he leans heavily on anecdotes and openly admits to anthropomorphizing his subjects. What makes his writing shine is his raw enthusiasm for spiders and his willingness to get up close and personal with them. Sometimes he goes even further, like when he decides to make a personal investigation of the glue-coated thread orb weavers use to make their webs. “They say you can taste the acid if you lick the spiral part,” he writes. “I must admit, I have licked the spiral parts and detected no taste.”

When I asked friends if they wanted to see pictures of my newest spider finds, their mouths said, Sure!, while their eyes said, Please don’t.

If the world of spiders is a play, as Crompton says, then it’s a wild one—more like a carnival pageant than a Broadway drama. Currently, the World Spider Catalog—a resource maintained by scientists from around the world—accepts 50,449 different species of spiders, with more added weekly. (By comparison, scientists recognize roughly 6,500 extant mammal species on earth.) They’re more varied than you could imagine. There are brightly colored peacock spiders that dance for their mate; net-casting spiders that hang with a snare of web between their front legs, waiting for prey to wander beneath them; long-headed pelican spiders that lash out to grab their prey—other spiders—like Hungry Hungry Hippos; and the largely vegetarian Bagheera kiplingi, a jumping spider that subsists mostly on protein-rich leaf bits from thorn trees. There are orb weavers that spin for a summer and then die, and there are 40-year-old trapdoor spiders in Australia that could remember the fall of the Berlin Wall, if they had newspaper subscriptions and the language-processing centers to read them. Spiders are as exciting as any other order of animals—and they’ll save you a trip to the zoo. If you want to see them, you just have to keep your eyes open and go about your business.

A mottled jumper (Attulus fasciger). Location: Denver, Colorado.
A mottled jumper (Attulus fasciger). Location: Denver, Colorado. (Adam Roy)

Before long I had built a mental map of the spiders around the Lincoln house, and I learned their habits. During the day, I watched the tan jumping spiders that prowled the outer walls and patio; their bushy pedipalps (facial appendages) looked like a 19th-century gentleman’s mustache. I saw pinto-bean-size bold jumpers, whose green chelicerae—the bases of their fangs—shone iridescent in the sunlight like a hummingbird’s plumage. Crab spiders sat camouflaged against the brick-and-vinyl siding, their long first and second legs poised to snap up any flying insect unlucky enough to land within their reach.

At night, a fat-bodied giant wetland wolf spider emerged from a crack between the concrete front step and wall to hunt, while American grass spiders crawled out from behind the shutters and took position in the middle of their funnel-shaped webs, their striped cephalothoraxes making them look like eight-legged badgers. Elsewhere, false widows and common house spiders built their tangled webs in any corner they could find. I dutifully logged every new sighting in my journal, jotting down the species, date, place, and notes in a Google doc.

Sharing my new hobby was turning out to be difficult, however. If you think people tune out when birders start talking, try telling them about the wolfie you saw walking around with several dozen spiderlings clinging to her abdomen, or the fishing spider you watched shish-kebab a moth. My wife tried to be supportive, even though spiders make her hair stand on end. When I asked friends if they wanted to see pictures of my most recent find, their mouths said, Sure!, while their eyes said, Please don’t. For every new spider appreciator I converted, a dozen people told me about their spider bites, asked me if I was afraid of black widows, or just warned me to be careful.

A spiny orb weaver (Gasteracantha cancriformis). Location: Punta Gorda, Florida.
A spiny orb weaver (Gasteracantha cancriformis). Location: Punta Gorda, Florida. (Adam Roy)

Let’s get this out of the way: spiders are not as dangerous as you think. Of those 50,449 species in the world, only about 100 are known to be potentially deadly to humans. It’s possible to rule out entire families of spiders as hazardous just by looking at them. No spider anywhere that makes an orb-shaped web—the classic circular pattern from your Halloween decorations—can cause permanent harm to a human. Nor can the googly-eyed, short-legged jumping spiders. Tarantulas aren’t capable of killing you, though the bites of some of the old-world species can be painful. Huntsman spiders grow big enough to kill small bats, but not people.

Even the species that are potentially dangerous to humans—what scientists call the “medically significant” spiders—aren’t nearly as deadly as their reputations would suggest. In the United States, we have two genera that fall into this category: Latrodectus, a group of cobweb spiders that include the three American species of black widow, and Loxosceles, the recluses. They’re both common—I’ve seen friends post pictures of potted plants on Facebook without seeming to be aware of the black widows hanging from them, and in houses where recluses have become established, glue traps can catch the wandering males by the dozens.

But bites from either are rare, and deaths almost unknown. Over the past decade, the American Association of Poison Control Centers has recorded zero fatalities from black widow bites and only one from a recluse. While some recluse bites can cause necrosis, most of the photos you find online of enormous, festering wounds are mislabeled pictures of bacterial infections. If spiders were half as aggressive or dangerous as most people think, the death toll would be apocalyptic, and everyone in Missouri and its surrounding states—the prime habitat of recluses—would be missing at least one limb.

What about Australia, the country where everything can famously kill you? Similar story. Bites from its funnel-web spiders can be deadly, but thanks to modern antivenoms, no one has died from one since 1979; the only recorded spider-related death over the past 43 years in that country took place in 2016, when a hiker passed away from an infection after getting bitten by a redback, Australia’s version of a black widow.

You protest: spiders may not be dangerous, but their bites still hurt, and I get bitten by them all the time. I have news for you. Unless you’ve caught a spider in the act, you probably haven’t been bitten by one. People, including many doctors, are consistently bad at identifying spider bites after the fact. A 2005 article in the New England Journal of Medicine noted that physicians frequently misdiagnose a wide variety of ailments as brown recluse bites, including staph infections, syphilis, skin cancer, and anthrax poisoning. Unlike horseflies or ticks, spiders don’t get any benefit from biting people. Instead, they strike out defensively, usually when they’re in danger of being crushed. If you wake up with a bite, you’d be better off checking your window screens for mosquito-size holes or your mattress for bedbugs.

Spiders aren’t the alien little automatons we often imagine they are: they’re animals, like birds or bunnies or squirrels.

If spiders aren’t dangerous, then, why do we have such an outsize fear of them? One theory is that it’s an evolutionary holdover—an inheritance from our primate ancestors, who didn’t have the ability to distinguish dangerous spiders from innocuous ones, or to treat their bites. In a 2017 study, researchers from Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Science and Sweden’s Uppsala University found that six-month-old infants’ pupils dilated—a sign of stress—when shown pictures of spiders but not when shown pictures of flowers. Even bug scientists aren’t immune. A 2013 poll in American Entomologist found that roughly 17 percent of the researchers who responded were arachnophobic.

Other studies, however, have argued that while we evolved to notice spiders, we’re not born afraid of them. A 2011 paper by a trio of researchers from Carnegie Mellon, Rutgers, and the University of Virginia noted that even though a group of three-year-old children could recognize pictures of spiders more readily than other objects, they didn’t necessarily show fear in their presence. Instead, the researchers suggested, arachnophobia is something that adult caregivers pass down to young children by example.

Of course, as Crompton notes, maybe it’s better for the spiders if we’re a bit wary. “There was… a certain young French lady who caught and ate every spider she saw. She found them so delicious she could never resist them,” he writes. “Another such epicure was the once-famous Maria Schurrman who also gobbled up every spider she laid her hands on. She said they tasted of nuts and justified her passion for them by saying she was born under the sign of Scorpio.”

A wolf spider (family Lycosidae) Location: Boulder, Colorado
A wolf spider (family Lycosidae). Location: Boulder, Colorado. (Adam Roy)

If the human fear of spiders is indeed genetic, you wouldn’t have known it watching my son. In the months after my spider-wakening, I took my new obsession from the backyard to the trail, mostly with Rhys in tow. Maybe it was because he could look at them face to face, but spiders fascinated him in a way that birds hadn’t. I remember the hikes we did together mainly in connection with the new species we saw. One time we spotted an enormous banded garden spider hanging upside down in the reeds at Lincoln’s Pioneers Park Nature Center, its body like a wasp-striped football and its legs in a perfect X. Later, at Colorado’s North Table Mountain, a rust-red Apache jumping spider climbed onto a tree root and looked at us, cocking its head as Rhys knelt down and did the same. Sometimes he spotted them before me, pointing at an orb web or a wolf spider blending in against a rock. Once or twice, perhaps possessed by the spirit of John Crompton, he tried to lick them.

Time passed. I started traveling again, and found new spiders wherever I went. On a work trip to Panama, palm-size wandering spiders meandered through the tall grass near our camp, and a stretch spider spun a web in the corner of my tent, wrapping up and feasting on the little green flies that had snuck through the unzipped door. On the Oregon coast, missing sector orb weavers spun a latticework of webs across the porch of our hotel room.

What I loved, and still love, about finding new spiders was the shift in perspective. I’d crouch down, snap a photo, and spend a few minutes living in its microscopic world, watching as the spider felt its way through grass that towered overhead, unspooled its silk into a net, or cautiously approached a potential mate, palps waving in time to some rhythm drummed out by its DNA. All of this was happening around me, in the talus by the trail or the corners of my house. When I’d stand up again, the world seemed bigger somehow.

A funnel weaver (family Agalenidae). Location: Parque Internacional La Amistad, Panama.
A funnel weaver (family Agalenidae). Location: Parque Internacional La Amistad, Panama. (Adam Roy)

And what does that world look like to a spider? It’s hard to say. While the science is constantly evolving, it seems likely that they perceive their environment very differently than we do. For example, while huntsman, jumping, and net-casting spiders, can see extremely well, others have eyes capable of little more than registering movement—or, in the case of various cave-dwelling spiders, no eyes at all. The hairlike setae on their bodies can detect vibration, air movement, and even electric fields, which the young of some species use to “balloon” through the atmosphere on ribbons of charged web. Males can sense females’ pheromones, sniffing them out of the air or via silk draglines.

There’s even evidence spiders can dream. In 2020, Daniela Roessler, a German ecologist from the University of Konstanz, noticed that jumping spiders in the field near her house spent the night dangling from plants, suspended by a single thread of silk. They were immobile except for their curled-up legs, which wiggled and twitched like a sleeping dog’s or cat’s. When she and her collaborators put the juvenile offspring of these spiders—still transparent enough for observers to see through their exoskeletons—under a camera in their lab, they found that the spiders’ retinas were moving rapidly, seemingly focusing and refocusing on nothing. It seemed, the researchers wrote, like the spiders were experiencing something similar to human REM sleep.

Does this really mean jumping spiders can dream? They can’t talk, so it’s impossible to ask. But REM sleep is the stage when humans have the most vivid dreams, and when some neuroscientists believe we filter and form our memories, so it seems possible. For now, we can only guess what stories their little brains might be weaving for them; in an interview with National Geographic, Roessler, who’s seen the spiders suddenly extend all their legs in their sleep, speculated that they might have nightmares.

While snooping on spiders’ little worlds, I found something worth protecting. Try it, and I’m willing to bet that you will, too.

The spiders with the biggest brains still have far fewer neurons than people—roughly 100,000, compared to our 86 billion. But they do some surprisingly complex things with those noggins. Members of one genus of jumping spiders, Portia, have been observed sneaking up on prey by routes that move them out of visual range; they’ll also change approaches, depending on what they’re hunting, chasing down insects and ambushing web-building spiders by twanging their webs to simulate trapped prey or lowering from above on a strand of silk.

Time and again, humans have dismissed “lower” animals as mindless stimulus-response machines to justify our poor treatment of them; time and again, we’ve been proven wrong. As David Foster Wallace wrote in his famous essay “Consider the Lobster,” people who eat crustaceans like to insist that lobsters can’t feel the pain of being boiled alive. In reality, the experimental evidence against that belief is compelling, and the evidence in favor of it is mostly philosophical meandering on the nature of suffering. If we accepted that spiders have internal lives, would we need to learn to live with them? I think so. As Roessler put it: “You cannot smush a spider that dreams.”

But if spiders’ intelligence challenges us, it should comfort us, too. Spiders aren’t the alien little automatons we often imagine they are: they’re animals, like birds or bunnies or squirrels. Whether they’re spinning webs or crawling up your wall, they’re using the tools available to them to make their living as best they can.

A stretch spider (Tetragnatha sp.). Location: Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge, Denver, Colorado.
A stretch spider (Tetragnatha sp.). Location: Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge, Denver, Colorado. (Adam Roy)

Have I sold you on arachnids? Then I have some bad news: it’s a tough time to be a spider lover, and a tougher time to be a spider.

Across the world, there’s evidence that spider populations are in danger of collapse. A landmark 2019 study in Nature found that the number of spiders, insects, and other arthropods dropped precipitously in Germany from 2008 to 2017, with the total number of different species researchers counted declining by 33 percent and total biomass dropping by 40 percent. Remember the Australian trapdoor spiders I told you about? They’re disappearing, too. After a century of settlers clearing land for crops and raising livestock, they’re becoming harder and harder to find. It’s all but certain that entire species of spiders will go extinct before we even have a chance to discover them, falling victim to industrial agriculture, pesticides, and climate change.

Having spiders around us is almost always a net good. They leave us and our food alone and spend their time feeding on the bugs that would otherwise infest our homes. But that’s not why I think they’re worth saving. Instead, we should save them because they’re incredible creatures, and a world where they aren’t digging their burrows, weaving their webs, or hiding in flowers in wait for prey would be a drabber, poorer one. When I started snooping on spiders’ little worlds, I found something worth protecting. Try it, and I’m willing to bet that you will, too.

In my garage back in Colorado, where I’m writing this, a barn funnel weaver has built a web in the corner. She’s hiding now, but when night falls, she’ll be out, waiting for a mosquito or a moth to blunder in. Red and taupe woodlouse hunters patrol the edges of the foundation sometimes, searching for roly-polies to eat.

Across from where I sit, my window is crosshatched with gossamer threads, draglines left by mottled jumpers and zebra jumpers as those spiders fed, mated, and fought their way across the sill. It’s afternoon here, and they’re gleaming in the sun. Soon it will be cold, and the jumping spiders will be gone for the season, dead or tucked into their winter hides. But their silk will be there on the window, a little record of comings and goings.

Editor’s note: Spiders can be tough to photograph, especially in their webs. But with enough patience, you can snap good pictures of them with only a smartphone. The author used a Google Pixel 4a; the latest in the series, the Pixel 7, shoots crisp photos in a wide variety of light. Add a clip-on macro lens for even closer, more detailed shots.

Lead Illustration: Eren Wilson