Well, first off, they make a nice alliteration for my title. Yes, I know. Pretty thin. But wait, there’s more.
They are also the subject of a song written by Jim Stafford. Jim who? Okay, maybe a vast majority of individual who read this, have never heard of Jim Stafford or the song “Spiders and Snakes.” It could be because it was written almost 40 years ago. But hey, you can get it as a ringtone.
I think I could be losing my audience here. Alright, how about this, these were the two animals I happened to capture with my camera when I went out in my yard the other day. Well, not great but getting better, right?
Oh, I know. Here’s a good one: I included these two specific animals because spiders and snakes instill a primal fear that is imbedded in our DNA. I knew I would come up with something good eventually! Unfortunately this is not exactly true. While it is true that spiders and snakes top the list of
things we fear, current research suggests that these fears are learned, not an inherent part of our genetic memory. We are not born with a terror of these creatures, but we have the ability to pick up these fears very quickly as infants, when we see it in others or have a bad experience for ourself.
There is good reason to fear some spiders and snakes. Many are dangerous to humans, and can harm or kill us. A healthy respect for these animals is a good thing. But when we lump all spiders and snakes into a group of “beasts” that are out to get us, it can easily spiral into an irrational fear (phobia) of all animals within these categories.
A popular quote says “Familiarity breeds contempt.” As much as I respect the works of Mark Twain, I think he got it wrong this time. In fact I would go as far as to say the exact opposite is true: “Familiarity elicits understanding.” This may not hold true with all things, but I think it is a more accurate response to our association to the world around us.
So, I would like to introduce to you a spider and snake I am familiar with. In this case, familiarity does not suggest I am an expert, rather that they are common where I live and I know enough about them to not be excessively fearful.
The European Garden Spider (Araneus diadematus) is an orb weaver, also known as the diadem spider or cross spider. It is common in parts of the United States and western Europe.
Once a victim gets entangled in the spider’s web, it is wrapped in silk before it is eaten. The female looks positively menacing as it waits for its pray in its spiral web. I have seen some with abdomens as large as 15mm in diameter. It is no wonder that this particular spider is feared just because of its appearance. If you have any doubt about the amount of fear these little critters evoke in people, just do a google search for baby spiders and scroll down to read the comments. However, the truth is that the diadem spider is known to be passive. It might be difficult to even get one to bite a person. Their bite is somewhat unpleasant, but completely harmless to humans.
The female lays anywhere between 300 and 900 eggs. The clusters of newly hatched spiders can be found huddled together on the sides buildings in May and June. They are yellow with a large black blotch on their abdomen which is roughly triangle shaped. Eventually the tiny spiders are dispersed by balloning.
The European garden spider is a beneficial species that feeds on insects, and keeps their populations in check.
Moving on to snakes, the one and only species which I have found in the “wilds” of western Washington is the Common Garter Snake (Thamnophis siratalis). Markings vary widely for this species, but many have longitudinal stripes (frequently yellow) down the middle of its back and along each side with a pattern of splotches between the stripes.
Mating occurs in late spring and they give birth to several dozen live young in late summer.
This snake is one of the most wide ranging snakes in the United States. It lives in a variety of habitats, but is often found near water.
The diet of the garter snake includes frogs, earthworms and salamanders, and is often preyed upon by larger fish, birds of prey and raccoons.
Though docile, the garter snake does occasionally bite humans if provoked. The bite is not dangerous, but the saliva may cause itching or swelling. If handled the snake is more likely to wriggle away than bite. The snake will also defend itself by releasing a foul smelling musk from a scent gland near the tail. As kids we used to catch these snakes, but the smell it left on your hands made you think twice before picking one up. Like most wild animals it is usually best to observe them at a distance that does not put them in distress.
If you come across a garter snake in your path, don’t just assume it is waiting to “get” you. It is more likely just trying to soak up a little sun to regulate its body temperature.
So now that you have met the European Garden Spider and the Common Garter Snake, maybe you can consider the question asked at the beginning of the article. We tend to fear what we don’t understand. Spiders and snakes may seem very strange to us, but they are not the horrible nightmarish creatures that we sometime make them out to be. They are simply dealing with the challenges of life that are placed before them.