Are spiders more scared of us than we are of them?

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Offline thedoc

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Harrison Crawford  asked the Naked Scientists:
   Many people are terrified of spiders! Especially children. When I was looking after my little cousin and we came across quite a large spider (well large for a spider in Scotland), I found myself telling her 'it's okay, spiders are actually more scared of you than you are of them'

This is a popular way of comforting people scared of various insects, animals etc.

But is this actually true?!

Are spiders scared of us? If we pick one up are they really scared? And if they are... More than us? 

How do spiders,  and even insects  view us as humans? Do spiders think we pose a threat to them?

I would really appreciate it if you could answer!

I listen to your podcasts all the time. I work for the family window cleaning business and your podcasts get me through the day. I listen to older ones after I've finished the newest episode! I really appreciate how much effort must go into making your podcasts, and thank you all so much!
What do you think?
« Last Edit: 19/12/2015 09:48:29 by chris »


Offline Don_1

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Re: Are spiders more scared of us than we are of them?
« Reply #1 on: 07/01/2016 12:59:17 »
This is not an easy or straightforward question to answer, especially since I am no entomologist let alone arachnologist. But since nobody else has responded to your question, I'll give it my best attempt.

So you come downstairs in the morning for nice cup of Rosy Lee (tea) only to find a spider sitting in the middle of the kitchen floor. Either because you have no wish to kill it or you don't want to make a hideous mess on the floor and sole of your carpet slippers, you put your foot down right next to Boris, who makes a hasty get-away from this threatening huge clodhopper. Yep, he sure is scared. Alternatively, you carefully walk up to him and put a glass over him, slide a card under the glass and unceremoniously evict him out of the back door. This will often be quite easy to do, but is it that Boris is not afraid of you, or was he just taking an ill advised nap?

Given that spiders are not exactly lacking in the ocular department, having 4 pairs of eyes, the chances are, if Boris was awake, he saw you coming. So why didn't he run for cover? Was he not afraid of you? Spiders and many insects seem to display this nonchalant care-free attitude to humans. Why? Yet confronted by some bird such as a Starling, Robin or Great Tit, a mere fraction the size of a human, they will run for cover or, in suitable habitats, freeze to merge with surroundings and hope the danger passes by. Why should this be so?

Alternatively, its been a long hard day at work. (WHAT? You've a job? Aren't you the lucky one.) There you sit in the garden sipping a cold McEwan's and contemplating The Trossachs (Eh!!! Can he say that here, Trossachs, can he?) when a spider crawls up your leg. Why did the spider show no fear? Next a wasp starts buzzing around your can of beer. After considerable flailing of your arms and moving from one end of the garden to t'other, the persistent wasp gets the better of you. Not wishing to get stung by the wasp, you beat a hasty retreat to the safety of the kitchen. As we all know, wasps can be persistent buggers and may sting if annoyed, while a Bee will only sting as a last resort, since the barb on the Bee's stinger lodges in your skin and rips out the whole stinging mechanism from the Bee's abdomen, resulting in its death. Actually, that's not true at all, most Bee's, such as the Bumblebee, do not have a barbed stinger and therefore have multiple sting capability. And as you sit in The Trossachs (Yes its OK, he can say that) tiny Midges fearlessly attack you. Why aren't these arachnids and insects afraid of you?

Perhaps the question should be, why should they be afraid of you? You, like a horse or even an Elephant, are not a recognised predator, while a Hedgehog, Flycatcher or Robin are recognised predators, therefore it is they that should be avoided at all costs. You pose no threat unless you come dangerously close, posing a threat of trampling on them or actually interfere with them.

So are they more afraid of you than you are of them? I would say no. Some humans have an irrational fear of spiders due perhaps to a perceived though mostly non existent threat, unless, of course, its a Red Back, Black Widow or Funnel Web. Spiders and insects do not suffer from these misconceptions. Their fear of us might only be one of accidental harm, not becoming a tasty morsel.

As to insects, most of our fears are also misconceived, we just don't like creepy-crawlies. But there are those, in addition to the spiders named above, which we would do well to avoid. The female Anopheles, being the mosquito which is the vector of Malaria, is the most obvious. With its ability to land on us unfelt and administer a local anaesthetic while it draws blood, has no reason to fear us. Then there are the fearless Army Ants, which will attack anything in their path. Fortunately, these undesirables do not reside in the UK. Mind you, parts of Scotland are best avoided if you don't want to be hounded by a billion blood hungry Midges.

Please bear in mind that this is conjecture, not scientific fact.

There are evolutionary psychological possibilities for arachnophobia (and other such phobias) suggested, by which our early ancestors developed a healthy and well-founded fear of arachnids, snakes and other venomous creatures. Those who actively sought out caves etc. which were free from such threats, or evicted them from their caves, mud huts, or whatever, were more likely to survive than those who did not. Perhaps being unable to tell the venomous from the non-venomous led them to fear all, rather than take a chance. Thus the fear of them became ingrained in their DNA. This, however is highly speculative.

Certainly though, it can pay to harbour a healthy respect or fear of the unknown. But is it possible to pass on such fear through DNA? Take a look at any young animal and you will see it may have no fear where it should.

A Lion cub may see a Hingeback Tortoise as an easy meal. Only after some time does it realise there is no way in to the closed shell and turn its attention elsewhere, but it will remember that Hingeback Tortoises, though not a threat, can be taken off the menu. The same cub might also investigate a Scorpion, but on receiving a painful nip from its pincers or worse still a sting, not just remove Scorpions from the menu, but remember to avoid contact. This is knowledge gained from experience, not instinct passed down by DNA.
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