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The Nature Of Halloween And Its Critters

In 1974 Jim Stafford co-wrote and recorded a popular song called, “Spiders and Snakes.” At least part of its appeal was Mary Lou’s line, “I don’t like spiders and snakes…” because so many people shared her feelings.

Sadly, 45 years later, such attitudes remain. My younger brother hates spiders. My wife and younger daughter hate snakes. And if truth be told, I’m not crazy about ticks and yellow jackets.

As we celebrate Halloween this year, let’s give spiders, snakes, bats, and their ilk a break. Too often, fears acquired in childhood last a lifetime.

Spiders top the list of cringe-worthy critters because they can be found just about everywhere, even in our homes. But their natural history is documentary worthy. Let’s turn those fears into just a little respect.

My favorite spider is the striking black-and-yellow garden spider. It’s big, colorful, and common, and it weaves large classic spider webs.

Spider silk is incredibly strong, elastic, and sticky — perfect for snaring unwitting prey. Look closely, and you’ll often find a heavy zig-zag pattern near the center of the web. This is a lure that attracts unsuspecting insect prey.

These distinctive patterns are made of silk that reflects ultraviolet light. The rest of the web’s spiral and radiating strands lack this quality.

The UV reflection attracts prey because many pollen-laden flowers also reflect UV light. Insect pollinators can see UV light and are thus duped into investigating the web’s reflectivity. After they land on the web, it’s too late. They get caught on the sticky, invisible strands. The vibrations caused by their thrashing alerts the web weaver that dinner is served.

But not all spiders spin webs to capture prey. Wolf spiders are large, active predators that run down their prey. When not hunting, they live under rocks or in burrows. Fishing spiders rest on bits of floating vegetation and detect vibrations on the water surface when insects fall in.

Snakes sit just a notch below spiders on the creepiness scale. Our almost universal fear of serpents is perhaps deep-seated — a lingering, phobic response passed down from prehistoric ancestors, who may have had good reason to fear large snakes.

Many people find all predators repulsive. How can we appreciate anything that kills baby birds still in the nest? Well, snakes also eat chipmunks and rats; better mousers are hard to find.

Another strike against snakes is that transparent scales cover their eyes, so they constantly stare.

Snakes’ legless, slithering form cause some people to shiver and shriek. However, specializations of the skeleton and musculature allow snakes to move with remarkable speed, agility, and efficiency. It’s truly a remarkable form of locomotion.

Some people fear snakes because a few are poisonous. Fortunately, unless you’re in the habit of rolling logs, flipping rocks, or climbing rocky ledges, you’re unlikely to encounter a rattlesnake or copperhead.

Perhaps the most important reason for our fear of snakes is cultural. Judeo-Christian doctrine teaches that serpents are evil.

Furthermore, Hollywood perpetuates the fear of snakes through adolescence and into adulthood. Films such as Anaconda and Snakes on a Plane even made my skin crawl.

Bats, another Halloween favorite, have become a little less scary in recent years. White-nose syndrome has killed more than 90 percent of some populations, and the public’s response has been largely sympathetic. Perhaps we have begun to appreciate some important bat facts.

¯ A single little brown bat can catch 600 flying insects every night. Farmers and homeowners who host 100 bats in a bat house or two can count on bats eating up to 60,000 insects every night.

¯ Bats use a sophisticated form of echolocation to find and capture flying prey. They can perceive objects as thin as a human hair.

¯ Bats carry rabies no more frequently than any other mammal. You’re far more likely to contract rabies from an infected dog, cat, raccoon, or skunk than from a bat.

Spiders, snakes, and bats may have an image problem with the general public, but they all do far more good than harm. So, let’s shift the horrors of Halloween from nature to truly scary things like clowns, werewolves, and zombies.

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Send questions and comments to Dr. Shalaway at sshalaway@aol.com or 229 Cider Mill Dr., Apt. 102, Hendersonville, NC 28792.

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