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The House of Spiders

April 16, 2014

A guest post by Edward O. Wilson - At the end of a long rutted road in the park sits a conspicuous artifact in the midst of wilderness. Built in 1970, the Hippo House was the vantage point, the antigo miradouro, from which well-heeled tourists, cool drinks in hand, watched wildlife herds as they grazed over the vast floodplain grassland below. Today the herds are back, but the house is a seldom-visited ruin. During the Mozambique civil war, almost all the buildings of Gorongosa National Park were torn down or blown away, leaving behind a few remnants scarred by bullets. The house had been reduced to a shell of its original self.


The skeletal remains of the Hippo House, once a busy restaurant and observation point.


When I first visited the Hippo House, Mozambique was in the middle of the winter dry season. Other than along the watercourses, the vegetation of Gorongosa was brown and withdrawn. Insect life was still abundant, but harder to locate. I had been told that spiders, big ones, were abundant at the house, but I was quite unprepared for what I found. The interior of the ruined building was powder dry. Its floor, stanchions, and ceiling were windblown and coated with dust. No vegetation reached in from the outside, and except for a few small geckos resting on the pillars, there was no immediate sign of life of any kind. Instead, torn webs and long single threads of silk dangled from the ceiling like ghostly decorations in a haunted house. They swung gently back and forth in the occasional light breeze. No other movement or sound came from the seemingly empty space.


Each spider in the Hippo House was sheltered in a silken, tubular retreat, a behavior typical of species in the genus Nephilengys.


Where were the spiders I expected? Not one could be seen. But I knew they must be there someplace, alive, perhaps watching us. The idea of a hidden arachnid horde ready to rush out made me uneasy. Soon I saw something else: round objects plastered onto the ceiling. They were dusty and silent. My companions and I picked up a stick lying on the ground outside that was long enough to reach the ceiling, and tore two of the pouches apart. They proved to be silken egg pouches, undoubtedly made by spiders but now dry and empty; we were obviously not in the breeding season. The spiders themselves stayed hidden. Where were they? I grew more apprehensive.


We saw other, much larger, oblong pouches scattered over the rough eroded ceiling. At the tip of each was a circular entrance opening to a hollow interior. Using a flashlight and looking straight down the chamber, we could see what lay within. There at the rear of each pouch crouched a large spider, facing outward, its fangs, eyes, and the front of its tightly bunched legs visible. I wanted to see a specimen well enough to identify it, but hesitated. I was, to be frank, afraid of these crouched and waiting spiders. I suffer from mild arachnophobia. This spooky place was the setting of an arachnophobe’s nightmare.


We selected one of the pouches and poked at it in and out, but the spider stayed tight inside. One of my companions then took charge. He tore open the pouch and shook the inhabitant out into a transparent plastic bag. At last I could see what had lain within. The spider was heavy-bodied, the size of a thimble. When it suddenly spread its spiny legs, its width almost tripled.


I had solved the mystery of the spider house, at least in theory. The creatures in the silken bags were orb weavers, members of the spider family Nephilidae, called golden orb weavers, and, I later learned from an arachnologist, the species is Nephilengys cruentata. Some species of nephilids and the closely related araneids hide in retreats next to their webs; others remain in the centers of the webs. But how could there be so many spiders of this one species crowded together? Why are there no other creatures of any kind? The explanation I believed to be immediately clear. The floor of the lower level of the spider house is a layer of concrete. The interior is abnormally dry. Because the lower level cannot be invaded by any vegetation, few if any other forms of insect or arachnid life can live there. Yet flying insects undoubtedly fly through the wide-open space of the lower level, in through one side and out the other. A few might settle there to rest. The fate of most or all is the same: spider food.


An unlucky katydid that flew into a web under the Hippo House is immediately killed and wrapped in silk by a female orb weaver.


My imagination was roused by this bizarre little world, but more so by my own reaction to it. When I took the captured spider back to Chitengo Camp, I found I was unable to make a specimen of it. That would mean fishing the monster out of the cellophane bag and working it into a bottle of preservative. So I simply opened the rear window of my room and dumped my captive live onto the ground below, where it would at least have a chance of making its way to a tree or building and spinning a new silken retreat.


The golden orb-weaver (Nephila senegalensis) is one of the largest spiders of Gorongosa. Its name comes from the beautifully golden coloration of its silk.


I remember vividly the incident that made me an arachnophobe. I was eight years old. It was late summer, and I was exploring a vacant lot near our house. There were several full-grown female orb-weaving spiders in the high weeds, likely the common garden spider (Araneus diadematus), sitting in the center of their webs. I could not resist getting close enough to see all the details of one spider’s body. When I was about a foot away, it began to jerk back and forth in a menacing manner. I thought it was preparing to jump out and onto me. I ran. If that were not bad enough, I soon afterward saw a movie, the name of which I have long forgotten, in which a man is trapped in a cave. Blundering around, he becomes tangled in spiderwebs that are hung all around. Spiders, really big ones, climb down toward him, and . . .


Orb weaver (Nephilengys cruentata) from the Hippo House.


Aversions and phobias of this kind, with the latter an extreme response causing panic and cold sweats, can be imprinted with as little as a single brief episode. They are rarely caused by a frightening experience with a knife, a gun, an automobile, or any other modern contrivance that can injure or kill. On the other hand, they easily and quickly follow a frightening experience with one of mankind’s ancient perils: snakes, spiders, wolves, heights, running water, and closed spaces. During millions of years of human prehistory, it has paid in a major Darwinian way to have quick, decisive response to the things that can kill you.


So I have forgiven myself for the wavelet of fear and revulsion I felt about the harmless denizens of the spider house. Let me make further amends by stressing that people are mostly safe amid what remains of living nature. We conquered the man-eaters long ago by destroying almost all of the big predators willing and able to hunt humans. They survive in our stories and in our legends of monsters. We imagine them silently emerging from caves and swamps, easing up from unexplored depths of the sea, or drifting down unseen from above. Walk into or swim in any wild habitat remaining on Earth, maintain the same level of caution you would on a city street, and you will be far safer than in most urban environments. Use common sense: don’t swim with crocodiles; don’t paddleboard among seals where great white sharks have been seen; and above all, never, ever run up to a mother grizzly bear with cubs to take a better look. Your greatest risk in the wild is from insect-borne disease—malaria, dengue, leishmaniasis, yellow fever—and these can be deadly if untreated. But they are transmitted chiefly among people. They can be easily avoided, and in any case pose less risk to you than the mélange of pathogens passing directly from person to person in human settlements.


Tarantulas, known in southern Africa as baboon spiders, may look frightening but are generally harmless. Their main line of defense is not their venom, but tiny urticating hairs that cover the entire body.


The scary but harmless spiders in the Hippo House, and all the other animal species of wild environments like those of Gorongosa, are instinct-guided. They rigidly follow life-and-death routines formed during millions of years of evolution. Their lives are finely tuned and fragile in ways that are blessedly unthreatening to human beings.


Piotr Naskrecki and Edward O. Wilson in Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique.


Read more about the biological complexity and restoration of the fascinating ecosystem of Gorongosa National Park in “A Window on Eternity”, a new book by E.O. Wilson, with photos by P. Naskrecki (Simon & Schuster 2014).


Text Copyright © 2014 by Edward O. Wilson, Photographs Copyright © 2014 Piotr Naskrecki