Dr KARL SHUKER

Zoologist, media consultant, and science writer, Dr Karl Shuker is also one of the best known cryptozoologists in the world. Author of such seminal works as Mystery Cats of the World (1989), The Lost Ark: New and Rediscovered Animals of the 20th Century (1993; greatly expanded in 2012 as The Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals), In Search of Prehistoric Survivors (1995), and more recently Extraordinary Animals Revisited (2007), Dr Shuker's Casebook (2008), Karl Shuker's Alien Zoo: From the Pages of Fortean Times (2010), Cats of Magic, Mythology, and Mystery (2012), and Mirabilis: A Carnival of Cryptozoology and Unnatural History (2013), his many fans have been badgering him to join the blogosphere for years. The CFZ Blog Network is proud to have finally persuaded him to do so.

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Monday, 2 March 2015

SPIDERS WITH WINGS? IMPLAUSIBLE THINGS!



Never in the long and very diverse history of spiders – a very significant arachnid order (Araneae) whose lineage dates back more than 300 million years according to the known fossil record – has there ever been a spider with wings. And why should there be? Virtually all spiders display a lifestyle that has no place or need in it for wings, relying upon stealth and ambush to survive and to capture their prey, not flamboyant aerial activity like some bizarre eight-legged dragonfly. Nevertheless, this has not prevented flying spiders from winging their way every so often through both hard-copy and online media reports – to the delight of connoisseurs of the strange and uncanny, and to the despair of hardcore arachnophobes! So here are three of the most entertaining and engrossing accounts that I have seen which showcase these faux yet fabulous fliers of the spider kind.


A WINGED TERROR ON TUMBLR

During 2012, several users of the website Tumblr posted online what initially looked like a bona fide but unidentified newspaper clipping of a supposedly newly-discovered species of winged spider. The clipping consisted of a b/w photograph of the spider in question, entitled 'Scientist discovers winged spider', but with no accompanying details concerning it or its discovery. A close look at the photo, however, soon revealed that it was a not-especially efficient exercise in image manipulation of the photoshopped variety. The spider depicted was in fact a common (and wingless!) species of fishing (aka raft) spider belonging to the genus Dolomedes.

The fake report of a winged spider featuring a photoshopped image of an ordinary wolf spider (creator/s unknown)

In addition, as later revealed on the famous hoax-busting Snopes website as well as on several others too, the original photograph of it that had subsequently been manipulated by person(s) unknown to yield the winged spider is one that had been snapped on 23 September 2007 at Durham in North Carolina by Will Cook from Duke University in Durham, and had appeared (it still does in fact) on the website North Carolina Spider Photos (here is a direct link to this photo on the latter website).

Will Cook's original, undoctored photograph of a Dolomedes wolf spider (© Will Cook)

On 10 March 2014, the fake clipping and photo were revisited by the website of a UK computer services company, Digital Plumbing, which provided an extensive report about them, including details of how the winged spider, which in this report was unscientifically named Volat-Araneus (it should have been the other way around and italicised, of course, i.e. Araneus volat, if the aim was for it to resemble a genuine taxonomic binomial), preyed upon the poisonous (and real) false widow spider Steatoda nobilis.

A false widow spider Steatoda nobilis (public domain)

However, the report was peppered with clues that it was a hoax, and indeed, halfway through it its (unnamed) writer confessed this openly, explaining that the report's sole purpose had been to attract the attention of readers, who would now, the writer hoped, take note that this website was that of a company offering technology repairs and other services, as detailed in the remainder of the report.  In short, Digital Plumbing's report was a very novel marketing ploy, quite possibly the first one ever to utilise a non-existent winged spider to attract potential customers.


A WINGED SPIDER VIDEO AND A WINGLESS MISNOMER

Flying spider #2 has only appeared once (to my knowledge) – as an even less convincing photoshopped image presented in an extremely brief YouTube video uploaded on 15 October 2013 by Brian Griffin under the title 'Have Scientists Discovered a Winged Spider?' (click here to watch it).

In it, mention is made of the fact that a species called the long-winged kite spider is already known to science. This is perfectly true, the species in question being a forest-dweller known formally as Gasteracantha versicolor, which is native to the subtropics and tropics of eastern, central, and southern Africa, as well as Madagascar. However, 'long-winged' is something of a misnomer, because its 'wings' are not of the membranous, flight-producing variety. Instead, they are a pair of immobile sclerotised spines, borne laterally upon the opisthosoma or abdominal section of this spider's body in the adult female.

Gasteracantha versicolor, female, in South Africa's Krantzkloof Natuurreservaat (© JMK/Wikipedia)


THE ITALIAN TOMB SPIDER – ENCOUNTERED IN THE CATACOMBS

Far older and also far more intriguing than the previous two examples is the third member of this trio of winged wonders – albeit this time a truly grotesque Lovecraftian horror, a cryptic cryptid from the crypts in fact, known as the Italian tomb spider.

I first learnt of this macabre entity courtesy of British cryptozoological archive peruser Richard Muirhead, who sent me an unlabelled review report of an article that had originally appeared in the Pall Mall Gazette. Happily, I was soon able to trace the original source of this review report – namely, the San Francisco Call, which had published it on 29 November 1896. The report makes such compelling if unnerving reading that I am reproducing it in its entirety below – the first time, as far as I am aware, that it has ever appeared in an online cryptozoological article:

San Francisco Call, Volume 80, Number 182, 29 November 1896

ITALY'S TOMB SPIDER

A Thing So Odd That It is Believed to Exist Only in Imagination.

The people of Italy believe in the existence of a wonderful creature which, for the want of a better name, is called the tomb spider. The entomologists know nothing of this queer beast, and declare that it only exists in the fancy of the superstitious persons and those whose curiosity or business makes it necessary for them to explore old ruins, tombs, catacombs, etc. According to the popular account the tomb spider is of a pure white color, has wings like those of a bat, a dozen horrid crooked legs and a body three or four times the size of the largest tropical American tarantula.

The accounts of this queer insect and his out-of-the-way places of abode are by no means common, and on that account the information concerning him which we will be able to give the "curious" is very meager. Any Italian will tell you that such a creature exists, however, and that he is occasionally met with in old mines and caverns, as well as in tombs and subterranean ruins. The London Saturday Review has an article from a correspondent who was present when some Roman workmen unearthed a church of the fifth century. He says: "We were standing by one of the heavy pillars that had originally supported the roof, when something flashed down from the pitchy darkness overhead and paused full in the candle-light beside us, at about a level with our eyes. It was distinctly as visible as a thing could be at a distance of three feet, and appeared to be an insect about half the size of a man's fist, white as wax and with its many long legs gathered in a bunch as it crouched on the stone.

"Our guide had seen, or at least heard of this uncanny insect of ill omen before, but was by no means reconciled to its presence, as his notions proved. He glanced around uncomfortably for a moment and then moved away, we following. It seems really a bit queer, but it is said that the strongest nerves give way in the presence of this insect of such ghostly mien. Even today this uncanny apparition is said to be an unclassified monster — an eternal mystery. When the grave spider is encountered by those opening tombs and vaults it is thought to be a 'sign' of death to one of the workmen or some member of his family." - Pall Mall Gazette.

An almost identical account also appeared in another American newspaper, the Sausalito News, on 23 January 1897.

Vintage engraving of catacombs

What can we say about such a bizarre report? The spider, if indeed we can apply such a name to a creature sporting wings and a dozen legs, is unlike any life form known either upon or beneath the surface of Planet Earth, even if we generously assume that it may be a grossly exaggerated or embroidered description of a pallid form of bat or an exceptionally large moth.

Interestingly, as I documented in my book The Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals (2012), a dramatically new species of large cavernicolous spider with a pure white abdomen (opithosoma) was discovered by science in quite recent times, amid the deeper regions of Koloa Cave on the Hawaiian island of Kauai and a few others on this same island's southeastern coast, yielding six populations in total. Formally dubbed Adelocosa anops in 1973, this spelaean spider (sole member of its genus) delights in a very contradictory common name - the no-eyed big-eyed wolf spider! The reason for this stems from Adelocosa's membership of a taxonomic family of wolf spiders whose species are generally typified by very large, well-developed eyes, and are thus called big-eyed wolf spiders. In the case of Adelocosa, however, its ancestors apparently abandoned a traditional above-ground lifestyle in favour of a highly-specialised subterranean one instead - in which eyes were superfluous. Consequently, during the resulting evolution of this much-modified cave-dwelling species, they were eventually lost, thus explaining the apparent paradox of a no-eyed big-eyed spider.

Although made known to science only fairly recently, this distinctive spider has long been familiar to Kauai's indigenous people, who call it pe'e pe'e maka'ole. It is easily identified not only by its lack of eyes but also by its long and semi-transparent, orange-coloured legs (the normal complement of eight in number), its orange-brown cephalothorax (combined head-and-body section), and its ghostly white opisthosoma. Needless to say, however, it does not possess wings!

The Hawaiian no-eyed big-eyed spider (public domain)

As for the Italian tomb spider that does allegedly possess wings, conversely: during the 19th Century, gruesome, highly fanciful yarns of this nature were a popular genre of journalistic reportage, invented purely for entertainment purposes and never meant to be taken seriously, although they sometimes were – especially by the more credulous and less perspicacious of readers. In my opinion, this San Francisco Call report from 1896 is clearly a prime example from such a genre.

Having said that, however, I'd still be interested to read the article from the London Saturday Review referred to in the latter report (always assuming that such an article does exist), just in case its telling of the tale of Italy's dreaded tomb or grave spider is any less lurid and rather more believable. After all, even an account of a wingless spider sporting only the standard octet of legs typical for its kind but which is unusually large in size, is ghostly-white in colour, and exclusively inhabits crypts, catacombs, and other subterranean residences of the deceased would be sufficiently distinct from all recognised spider species to warrant more than passing interest from arachnologists and cryptozoologists alike.

'Spider's Room' (© Minhee-Kim/Deviantart)

So if anyone reading this present ShukerNature blog article can trace and send to me a copy of the relevant Saturday Review article, I'd very much like to see it – thanks very much!


BALLOONING SPIDERS AND ANGEL HAIR

Finally: although spiders, being wingless, cannot actively fly, some species can and do practise a type of passive gliding known as ballooning, which is often linked directly to a semi-mysterious phenomenon known as angel hair.

Angel hair is the name given to long, white, gossamer-like filaments that descend earthward often in vast quantities, cloaking meadows, streets, houses, or anything else that they land upon with their ethereal, silken strands. But what is angel hair - and where does it come from? Many eyewitnesses describe angel hair as resembling spider webs, and in most (though not all) cases this is indeed what it probably is (but see my book Dr Shuker's Casebook (2008) for some angel hair reports that clearly do not involve spider gossamer).

A sheet web composed of gossamer and woven by Linyphia hortensis, a species of money spider (Wikipedia)

Very few reports of angel hair actually mention the presence of spiders amid the shroud-like sheets and threads drifting downwards or discovered festooning the ground. Yet there is little doubt that this gauzy, filamentous material is merely an aggregation of threads produced by congregations of tiny money spiders (belonging to the family Linyphiidae) in order to become airborne by a process known as ballooning.

A money spider (public domain)

Silken threads drawn out of their spinnerets when the spiders face a strong wind are lifted, together with the attached spiders, into the air by the wind and carried aloft, the spiders sometimes travelling great distances before finally gliding back to earth. Once there, they simply abandon their threads, yielding spiderless, gossamer-like sheets called angel hair - as confirmed on several occasions by analysis of samples collected.


In short: apart from ballooning spiders, these eight-legged arachnids are reassuringly earthbound, and all are indefatigably wingless – unless you live in Italy and are well-versed in folklore appertaining to grim subterranean realms, and featuring encounters with monstrous creatures that never penetrate up into the light of day, something for which we can all be very thankful, especially if the tomb spider is a typical respresentative of this shadowy fauna of the catacombs and crypts.






1 comment:

  1. Having watched the deathshead hawkmoth in Spain on many occasions I would suggest it is the likeliest big moth to inspire this story of tomb spiders. Its heavy and furry abdomen, often displayed unlike in other moths, and equally bulky thorax and splayed legs give it a look of a skinny tarantula with wings. I recall pale versions but none I could call pure white.

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