Michael Ellis
Oct. 31, 1995

Hollywood has never let facts get in the way of entertainment, especially when it comes to portraying animals in the movies. The litany of distorted and exaggerated creatures is long: The Birds, The Frogs, The Fly, The Killer Bees, King Kong, Them (about giant ants), Jaws, Willard the Rat, and Piranha Piranha. I recently read that there is a new crop of movies on the way about that perennial favorite — vampire bats. Most modern people have enough trouble relating to nature without film makers exploiting this discomfort for profit.

As a biologist I am always concerned with movies that contain some factual information, that is mixed with fantasy. People tend to accept these movies as total truth. I am still dealing with the effects of Bruce the Great White Shark when I take people to the tidepools.

But I have to admit I’m rather critical movie viewer. I am the kind of guy that noticed there was a full moon every night for five days in a row in the movie, Moonstruck. I am not sure what planet they filmed it on, but it couldn’t have been the Earth. Our moon only appears full for about 2 days.

So it was with some trepidation that I went to see Arachnophobia. This is the current movie out about spiders. It shouldn’t be confused with Iraq-nophobia. This is, of course, the real drama now playing in the Middle East.

If you haven’t seen the movie, here’s a brief synopsis. Some scientists travel to a remote mountain in South America and discover a new species of spider. This large tarantula-like critter is particularly venomous and kills one of the members of the expedition. The spider is accidentally boarded up in the guy’s coffin and travels with him back to his small hometown in coastal California. At the funeral home this giant male spider escapes and mates with one of the local house spiders. This tiny female lays a gigantic egg sac that hatches into thousands of babies. These swarm over the town and begin killing the citizens.

The hero is a newly-arrived doctor escaping with his family from the stress of the big city. He happens to suffer from an irrational fear of spiders — arachnophobia. The Doc sort of overcomes his phobia and figures out what is happening. He kills the spiders, rescues the town, and then moves his family back to San Francisco, where he only has to fear getting mugged.

First some basic biology. It is unlikely that a South American spider that has been evolving for millions of years on a remote mountaintop could bop on up to California, breed with a local and produce offspring. By definition a species is a organism that is reproductively isolated from other organisms. In other words a species can only “do it” with others of its exact same kind.

To check on some other biological aspects of Arachnophobia I recently caught up with Jack Fraser, the President of the Northern California Spider Society. Jack has a doctorate in spiders from UC Berkeley. Unfortunately he couldn’t get a job in his field and so now he’s a computer programmer for the Phone Company. He’s been the president of the Society for nearly 10 years.

Every spider scene in the movie was full of huge cobwebs. Apparrently you can buy cobwebs in a spray can. Must have been a big budget item in this movie. Only one problem with this — according to Jack, tarantulas don’t make webs.

In the movie the spider victims had desiccated bodies, the fluid sucked right out of them. But tarantulas don’t feed that way. It is too bad the director didn’t talk to Jack, it could have been a real horror movie. “If a tarantula had really eaten, the victim would have been a huge messed up ball. Tarantulas chew up part of their prey, spit it back out on the animal, let the digestive juices work and then suck off what they can.”

All right, so Jack and I are both picky. The movie wasn’t that bad. If you really had arachnophobia you wouldn’t go to see it in the first place. But spiders already have a bad enough reputation, especially since they are so beneficial. An English biologist once estimated there were 2 1/4 million spiders in an acre of Sussex grassland. All of them catching and feeding on bugs. Can you imagine the number of flying insects eaten everyday by spiders? The earth would be unliveable for us without them. I’ll take spiders over flies anyday.



Posted on

November 6, 2010