Michael Ellis

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, Cat People, Piranha Piranha and 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 filmmakers exploiting their discomfort for profit.

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

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

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, which 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 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 the trouble begins.

Sound bite from the movie – “There’s a rumor going around that some kind of spider might have killed Sam Metcalf, maybe Margaret, maybe even my bronco……….”

The hero is a newly-arrived doctor escaping the big city, who happens to suffer from an irrational fear of spiders, that is, arachnophobia.

Sound bite “Dad, dad, it’s a spider it came at me. Calm down son you’re in the country now. Let’s get your mother. Honey, kill a spider for us. It’s bad luck to kill a spider in a new house. You just made that up, didn’t you dear?” Well 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 an organism that is reproductively isolated from other organisms. In other words a species can only “do it” with others of its exact same kind. Now there are some exceptions to this but only among very closely related animals: horses and donkeys, for instance, can mate and produce offspring called mules, but the mules are sterile.

To check on some other biological aspects of Arachnophobia I caught up with Jack Fraser, the President of the Northern California Spider Society. No joke, I’m a member and have a great tee-shirt to prove it. Anyway, 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.

Jack – “I was laughing through most of the movie I would say that fear of spiders is one of the more irrational fear. I think it is the creepy crawly syndrome.”

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

Sound bite from movie – “there may be some spiders around here that are very dangerous. Now if you should see one don’t try to kill it, just run…….”

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.

Jack – “If a tarantula had really eaten…it would have been a huge messed up ball. Tarantulas chew their food, spit on it and suck off what they can….”

Sound bite – “so the original male is the granddaddy of them all and he is acting like a general sending the troops out to battle….”

Jack – “most male spiders just inseminate the female and split…then they die. If you are going to have a monstrous animal then it should be the female… Where did they get that giant egg sac from? The female couldn’t have possibly laid it.”

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. They are actually very 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 that humans don’t have to cope with due to spiders. The earth would be unbeliveable for us without spiders. The only spiders that are actually dangerous to humans are the black widow and the brown recluse. According to Jack the Brown Recluse also called the violin spider is not native to California and is currently only found in the Los Angeles urban area. And while black widows are widespread; it is very rare that one ever bites a human being.

This is Michael Ellis with the perspective.



Posted on

November 5, 2010