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.


Michael Ellis

As I write this I am sailing north through the infamous Drake Passage in the South Atlantic. There are hundreds of Black-browed albatrosses, greater shearwaters and Giant petrels following our ship. Tomorrow I’ll be in the Falkland Islands. I have just fulfilled a lifelong dream – to see the great white southern continent. Antarctica is the coldest, driest, windiest, remotest, highest, least populated, and cleanest of all the continents. It has 90% of the worlds fresh water and much of the krill, seals, fish and whales left on our planet. Its huge mass of ice generates or at least greatly influences the entire worlds weather. This past Austral summer Antarctica has seen more tourists than any other previous season. I had some concerns about the ethics of taking eco-tourists to this remote place. I did not want to contribute its contamination. But I have learned several things that have eased my mind. According to one study done at Port Lockroy (which is the most visited site in Antarctica) tourists are not affecting the breeding success of Gentoo penguins. I do not mean to imply that the impact of 10,000 people is not significant, it is.. but the penguins are still going about their reproductive business.

And Antarctica, while relatively pristine, is definitely not the untouched paradise that’s often portrayed in the media. For nearly two centuries it has been ruthlessly exploited by humans. First the sealers came and killed thousands of fur and Elephant seals for their pelts and blubber. The whalers were next with hundreds of boats plying the waters, killing every whale they could find. In 1933 one facility was processing 100 whales per day. Remember this was not an ancient trade, it just ended in the 1960’s. The abundance of skeletons on nearly every beach testify mutely to the intense carnage. And though we saw many whales, the numbers are only a shadow of what once was. If it is carefully managed and controlled eco-tourism and scientific work should help keep Antarctica free from territorial claims and mineral exploitation and just maybe the whales will return.

This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.

Animals in our Speech

Michael Ellis

The other day I was having dinner with a friend, Leona. Something was definitely bugging her. She was feeling antsy, uncharacteristically wolfing down her food. She wouldn’t tell me what was wrong but I kept badgering her. I tell you sometimes she is just as stubborn as a mule. Finally she confessed that it was her work. She just left IBM for a job in a small company, she was certainly a big fish in a little pond now. But one of her fellow workers was getting the lion’s share of assignments. He was always nit picking about her work in front of the staff. A real snake in the grass he was. But finally the straw that broke the camels back was when rammed his own proposals right through without going through the proper channels. He had wormed his way into the good graces of the boss.Just then our waiter appeared with a rather dog-eared menu. He had been hounding us about the daily specials but I had a whale of an idea. Let’s just share a vegetarian burrito and a diet coke. I had really been pigging out during the holidays and my physique was nothing to crow about. Besides I am no spring chicken and I have been squirreling pounds for years now. Anyway Leona is normally as timid as a mouse but once she gets a bee in her bonnet then watch out. I told her what is good for the goose is good for the gander. I suggested that she not horse around with this, that she get to work and find some stool pigeon in the company who can ferret out this skunks weak spots. She told me that the old coot is proud as a peacock and most probably crazy as a loon, but he is real foxy in the business world so it may be hard to get to him. But if she worked hard and got real bearish about pointing out his weaknesses then he would soon be singing his swan song. Then things would be just as fine as frogs fur at Leona’s new job. Finally the waiter brought the bill but there was something fishy about it. I hate to grouse about checks but it was too high. They had charged us for two burritos, I was mad as a wet hen. After he corrected it, I went ahead and ponied up for the tab. Leona and I said our goodbyes as we always do.. see you later alligator, after a while crocodile.

This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.


Michael Ellis

Last week as I entered the bike path on my daily rollerblading foray I had to skirt a broken bottle, smashed into a zillion fragments. Then I saw an uprooted little tree, next a park boundary pole had been yanked up and hurled onto the asphalt.. and for the next 2 miles I bladed through the whirling destruction left by a very angry person. I too have felt that same level of anger. There was a time in my life as a new father with lots of pressure that intense emotion was boiling and seething just below the surface waiting for any small event to set it off. In traffic someone would cut me off and suddenly I was in a Walter Mitty nightmare, I am pulling the culprit out of the car, kicking biting, smashing and hurling him to the ground, stomping on him, wanting to kill…. then I surface out of it.. whoa, where did that come from. It came from my dark side.That dark side of all humans is well illustrated in new book called Hitlers Willing Executioners. It is another telling of the Holocaust but not of the elite SS troops or the masterminds of the Third Reich but it is the story of the common everyday German who actually carried out the murders of millions of their fellow beings. There were as many as a half a million “normal” Germans running the machinery of the Holocaust. They took their work seriously and even continued to kill even when their leaders said to stop. They actually brought their wives to watch them at their work. Without this complicity of the common folks, the Holocaust could not have happened.These were people not unlike you and me with an innate capacity for evil coupled with a moral justification for the elimination of the Jews. Now I admit that it is a huge step from uprooting a defenseless tree to shooting someone in the back, or from a violent daydream to driving a train full of concentration camp victims, or from supporting anti-immigration propositions to burning down synagogues, but a similar leap happened and it was not so very long ago.

This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.

Angel Island

Michael Ellis

I want to acknowledge the good work of California’s Department of Parks and Recreation; those are the guys in charge of 270 natural, recreational and cultural treasures of our great state. Every time I see the outline of Angel Island now I smile, thinking that there is hope. There are things done by the hand of man that can be undone and the most beautiful island in the middle of San Francisco Bay is living proof of this.

After becoming a park in the late 1960’s the States’s first challenge was dealing with the overpopulation of black tailed deer on the Island. The military and earlier, the native people, had kept the deer in check. But by 1976 they were overrunning the island, harassing tourists for their lunch and clearly something had to be done. After some mistakes and years of many very vocal public hearings the park rangers now regularly cull the animals. This keeps the population viable and healthy.

In 1991 the State began removing the non-native invasive trees from Angel Island, especially the blue gum eucalyptus and Monterey pines. The plan was to restore the oaks, bays and other native plants to the hillsides. No one had ever done a restoration on this scale before. It looked awful to many people at first (not me I hate eukes). There was even a citizen group formed to fight the proposal called POET (preserve our eucalyptus trees). Fortunately science prevailed and the ultimate result is the botanic healing of the island.

In the mid 1950’s the U.S. Army bulldozed 15 feet off the top of the mountain to accommodate a radar tracking station for Nike missiles. And last year all that piled up dirt was bulldozed back on top of the mountain, restoring the top to its former height of 785 feet. This is what makes my heart sing, looking at the silhouette. When we have the will, we can undo what we have done and let the curative power of nature begin.

This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.