CLOSE UP WITH SPIDERS
WORDS: SHIRLEY LE GUERN
IMAGES: JARROD TODD
Let’s face it, spiders have a bad reputation. Reams of research have been dedicated to discovering just why so many people are terrified of a species that is usually only mildly venomous and far less dangerous than your common or garden bee.
… and all the psychoanalysis came to nothing, it seems. There’s no totally rational explanation.
Some suggest you inherit arachnophobia from your parents. Others that spider behaviour could be the link.
Either way, along with bats and serpents, spiders have enjoyed a starring role in everything from horror movies to children’s rhymes and comic books. They are the heroes of Halloween and the stars of many old wives’ tales – and more likely to be squashed for inadvertently turning up in the wrong spot at the wrong time than even the wily mozzie.
That’s probably because they don’t enjoy the advantage of aerobatics – although some are great long and high jumpers.
The flip side of one of the world’s most common fears – arachnophobia – is a fascination with these eight legged creepy crawlies that verges on obsession and would probably put the average twitcher – otherwise known as a bird watcher – to shame.
“Out in Australia and South America, you actually get more people from across the world coming to study their bugs, spiders, birds, and what have you, so you just see their species more often. We do have very special spiders, I just think that we have less people that are interested in them,” says Jarrod Todd, an enthusiastic member of South Africa’s Spider Club.
That’s probably because the big five tend to steal the limelight – even though we have one of the most diverse spider populations in the world.
Admittedly, South Africa isn’t home to the big hairy varieties such as the infamous tarantulas and Australian Huntsman Spider that take centre stage on National Geographic. We do have baboon spiders and rain spiders, though. They just don’t come close to the sheer size of those found elsewhere. Ours tend to be just as fascinating but smaller and, believe it or not, harder to find.
“For example, we have the most species under the Latrodectus genus (button spider) in the country. I think our closest competitor is the USA, if I’m not mistaken,” he says.
According to Jarrod, one really has to go out into the bundu to see the special spiders in South Africa.
“You obviously get the common ones that live everywhere like, for example, the jumping spiders. These are actually the biggest family of spiders in the whole world. One of the most common ones, Rumburak laxus, is a spider that you can find from the northern Cape to KZN to Cape Town, in and outside of homes. But then you get ones like the beetle mimicking salti’s (Salticidae) which are in the genus Pachyballus. Those you’ll only find in the bushier areas with lots of trees, not often seen in homes” he explains.
All that said, Jarrod is not a botanist or entomologist or any “ist” for that matter. During normal working hours, he manages a factory that manufactures steel ducting.
But he admits that, since he was very young, he has always been passionate about nature and, in particular, fascinated by creepy crawlies.
“I loved finding little bugs and stuff like that. But I never really took the time to study them and to actually get to know what they are and how they live. I never had a camera so I would use my cell phone to try to get the best pictures I could,” he says, adding that growing up on a farm in the Magaliesburg probably helped.
In the spider spotting stakes, Jarrod is actually something of a new comer and he says he probably only about 20% of the knowledge that’s out there.
“That gives you some idea of just how diverse and different each spider is when it comes to just living and hunting and going about its day. Every single one of them is unique. And that’s why each one is classified and split up. So yes, in every area you visit, you are going to find different spiders,” he says.
He joined the Spider Club about 2 years ago.
“Since then, I haven’t spent a single day without looking at spiders. I knew about the common spiders like your button spiders, your rain spiders, your flatties. When I joined the club, I started seeing the diversity, the different kinds and colours, shapes and types of webs. It just grabbed my attention and really sparked a passion inside me,” he explains.
As an admin and events organizer of the Spider Club, he is also committed to changing the way people look at spiders.
“What we are trying to do at the Spider Club is to get as much information out there on how cool, and how amazing these creatures are. We want to show people how to admire them, how to look for them, how to find
them and explain how to tell the difference between each one. It really sparks something in people’s heads – like it did in mine – when you actually show them how diverse and interesting they really are.”
Jarrod is just one of many members that travel across the land taking people on spider safaris and helping them to spot and identify the eight legged lovelies that proliferate on their very doorsteps.
“I really hate living in Gauteng because it’s such a city area. You don’t find some of the rarer spiders that prefer to live out in the bush. When I went to Durban I was absolutely in my element. Every leaf I turned, everywhere I looked, there was just something new to explore. Joburg does have a lot of trees, but what’s nice about Durban is that they have patches of land that are undisturbed. And that is where you find huge, huge, huge diversity.
“I went all over the place. There was the actual walk we did with all the people at the Palmiet Reserve in Westville. I was also staying up in Ballito and they have very beautiful gardens and pathways. As humanly populated as that place is, there are so many creatures to find there,” he says.
SPIDERS THROUGH THE LENS
Shortly after joining the Spider Club, Jarrod developed another passion – macro photography. He bought a camera from his sister and an appropriate lens which opened up a whole new universe.
“As soon as I got my camera, I just couldn’t stop. Most of these little creatures are really tiny. Then you take a photo with a macro lens and a flash and it just brings out this incredibly detailed creature that can literally fit on the tip of your pinkie. Once you see stuff like that, there’s no going back. And they’re always different – a different shape, a different colour and a different size. When you take a photo and actually see this creature close up, you can be shocked at the tiny details these small creatures have.
“Now I can show you some photos of spiders that I’ve found that are magnificent. I mean there’s one that actually looks like a heart that’s been wrapped in sinew. It’s an incredible looking spider,” he says.
He’s also keen to travel to expand his photo collection.
The beauty of the world of South African spiders is that there are different spiders in different parts of the country. You won’t see the same spiders that you find in Pilansberg in Zululand or on Table Mountain.
“That’s why, in all our spider groups, we always ask for location. Spiders do need a certain eco system to survive. So some spiders prefer dark, damp forests. Some spiders prefer the sandy outback. Some spiders prefer to live above water. So in every little eco system that you go in, you are definitely going to find a different spider.”
With this came his own Facebook page. He’s convinced that showcasing this brave new world whilst explaining the intricacies of spider life will go a long way to getting others caught in the same web.
It’s also an important way to not only ramp up the importance of spiders, but to debunk some old wives’ tales and even unravel some urban myths which are certainly illogical and even verge on the ridiculous.
One such yarn, according to Jarrod, is that red romans (also known as camel spiders or sun spiders) hunt humans down in their sleep because they want to shave off their hair for nesting purposes. “First of all, their jaws are not able to cut hair. I don’t know where that came from,” he says.
Another myth that is apparently doing the rounds is that the Daddy Long Legs is actually one of the most venomous spiders – but it cannot bite because its fangs are too small. It’s quite the opposite. Daddy Longlegs can and do bite – but their venom has no effect on humans. Another popular myth debunked.
Another fear inducing rumour is that a bite from the sac spider will deliver a necrotic (flesh eating) wound that will never heal.
“The thing is, sac spiders have all been moved off the medically significant list across the world because they have actually done toxicity tests on the venom and they have found that the venom is not actually cytotoxic, in other words a flesh eating type of venom,” he explains.
To underscore this, some members of the Spider Club are helping a French researcher who is completing a research paper on sac spiders. They are asking those who have been bitten by sac spiders to report it to them if it was a confirmed bite where the bite was felt, the spider seen and correctly identified by an expert. So far, there have been around 20 cases and no signs of necrosis.
Jarrod believes that one of the biggest problems is that many people who go to their doctors after finding a wound on their bodies cannot even remember being bitten, let alone identify the culprit. In most cases it’s a matter of they were bit in their sleep and found a sac spider in their homes during the course of having the wound.
“Doctors usually confirm that they have a spider bite and give them a broad spectrum antibiotic to kill off the infections. But, it’s an infection that it’s killing off, not a necrotic wound. We actually have bacteria on our skin that cause infections. So, a lot of the time, people can have anything from a flea bite to a puncture from a thorn. Simply scratching that over and over can create a horrible septic wound. It is that infection that needs treatment and not a necrotic wound,” he explains.
What they have noticed, however, is that sac spiders have at least two to three times larger fangs than what other spiders have, making the wounds themselves more vulnerable to general infection.
Sac spider or not, though, he is emphatic about one thing. Be sensible and take care of a spider bite. One that is scratched and not cleaned or cared for will become septic and inflamed.
SPIDERS AND CONSERVATION
Right now, Jarrod is not debating whether or not slapping spiders with your slipper or slop is going to create a conservation crisis. There are lots of spiders out there and most of the rare and important ones are smart enough to keep away from neurotic humans.
But thinning out the spider population will inevitably upset the balance of eco-systems which is never a good thing.
“Spiders play a big part. Wherever you get a lot of pests, spiders can help manage those populations. For every spider that a human is Doom-ing, there are ten flies that are not being eaten. And vice versa, for every spider that’s being killed there’s a bird that’s losing out on a meal.”
Instead, he believes it’s time for people to understand what they (probably irrationally) fear – and get to know spiders in a whole new way.
“That’s the whole reason why at the Spider Club tries to host walks as often as possible. The unfortunate thing is that most of the people who are experts in the field are all based in Gauteng. We don’t really have a lot of people in KZN and the Western Cape. We are trying to find people from there who are both interested and knowledgeable to try get more walks out there, to try get more people involved.”
Showing people where to find fascinating spiders makes all the difference, he adds.
“One person shows another and there’s chain reaction. I could teach you so much. Curiosity triggers excitement about something. This is one of the reasons why I find these creatures so interesting. You think it’s a simple little bug but the lives they live are actually very complicated. “
To take his spider spotting to the next level, Jarrod is currently saving up to buy a microscope so that he can actually identify the spiders that he photographs down to species level.
As part of this quest, what is the spider that Jarrod would most like to see?
My bucket list is very long, he replies.
“But I think it would probably be a net casting spider. It’s also called an ogre-faced spider. These are very interesting looking spiders and a photographer’s dream to capture. They have very small heads. Eighty percent of that head is just these two massive eyes right in the front.”
If you would like to find out more about spiders or even go on a spider safari or walk, please contact Jarrod on the following:
Cell/WhatsApp: 067 833 2191