Uncategorized

The Revenge of Incy Wincy Spider

I think we are all familiar with the exploits of Ms Wincy, of order Araneae. But, just in case you are not, I will recap: Apparently, said spider climbed up a waterspout only for the rain to come down, thereby washing her out (the details are unimportant). Fortunately, or perhaps inevitably, the sun returned, resulting in the drying up of the aforementioned rain. Re-emboldened, the redoubtable Incy then returned to her erstwhile waterspout machinations.

A simple enough story, told no doubt to instil a sense of resilience and fortitude into generations of pre-snowflake rug-rats. But hold the front page!

In the New York Times we have:

To the list of things we’ve learned to fear from hurricanes — high winds, storm surge, floating islands of fire ants— a new study in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution suggests that we should add another: aggressive spiders.”

And from Wired we have:

Add skittering groups of extra-bold spiders to the list of post-storm delights…”

But it falls to The Burn-in to cut to the chase with:

Climate change may be making spiders more aggressive, are humans next?”

At the time of writing, the news has yet to reach The Conversation (I await its arrival with heaving bosom). But in the meantime, a quick survey of the broader internet coverage reveals that the editorial consensus has already settled firmly upon the obligatorily alarmist narrative – global warming is washing spiders away and Incy Wincy is pissed. It is only a matter of time before the human race goes the same way and starts tearing lumps out of each other.

As always, there is a ‘scientists-have-shown’ basis for the journalists’ hyperbole. This kind of fear-mongering doesn’t normally promulgate unless there is a scientific germ available, giving the journalists ample opportunity to misunderstand and misrepresent. So what is it this time, you may ask, that is providing them with their opportunity to weave such tales of climate-driven angst? I’ll spare you all of the gory details, but the essence is as follows:

Apparently, an academic who specializes in arachnid psychology has been storm-chasing in order to study the effect that recent hurricanes have had on the levels of aggressiveness shown by a particular species of sociable spider found in the Gulf of Mexico. So far, so quotidian. What he discovered, and hastened to share with the world, however, is that several months after the storms had passed, the spiders appeared to have developed anger management issues. This heightened aggression was measured by the willingness of the spiders to respond to the simulated struggling of a prey held within their webs (simulation having been initially provided by a judiciously planted dildo, subsequently upgraded – by way of experimental refinement – to an electric toothbrush). Only the boldest of spiders would jump to action, whilst the timid ones would remain in their barracks, wondering what the hell they could have possibly ensnared. I should point out at this juncture that our arachnid psychology expert had previously ascertained that spiders have only one of two personality types: bold and timid.

The point one is invited to take away is this: Here we have clear evidence of a lasting (nay, evolutionary) impact resulting directly from the stresses related to resource depletion. Placed under heightened natural selection, the species responded by becoming inherently more aggressive, since only the aggressive had the wherewithal to cope. And here is the rub: Extreme storms were to blame for all of this – and, as we all know, global warming is to blame for extreme storms. Worse still, as with the spider, so with the human. If aggressiveness worked for the former, we can only expect it to be the go-to strategy for the latter. Hold onto your seats. We are in for a bumpy ride.

Everything I have written so far would make perfect sense to most journalists. So let us see if we can help them regain a healthy state of self-doubt.

Firstly, I am no expert, but I would have thought that arachnid psychology was a niche subject, and little could be inferred from examining a spider’s take on aggression when thinking about human aggression. In fact, the particular measure used to determine levels of arachnid aggression maps most closely onto the psychological state I have experienced when standing outside a kebab house following a night out on the town. Yes, I am highly motivated to indulge, but not particularly because of a surge of testosterone or because of anything my amygdalae are up to.

Secondly, what our spider expert has really observed is an evolutionary adaptive response that just happens to be characteristically aggressive for that particular species of spider placed under those particular natural selective pressures. Based upon this evidence, it is more than a leap of faith to assume that humans will invariably, and solely, respond with aggression in order to adapt to any global warming impacts coming their way. I’d like to think we are a lot more psychologically sophisticated than your average spider. In fact, when I introspect, I become ever more convinced of that fact.

Thirdly, why are we all taking about evolutionary development? The guy only waited a few months to send out post-storm questionnaires to his spidery subjects. This is not nearly long enough to draw conclusions regarding long-term impact on gene pools. Presumably, prior to the storms, an evolutionary stable state (ESS) existed between aggressive and timid spiders. The storms had pushed the species away from that equilibrium, but there is no telling whether or not the ESS will be re-established in the future, for example due to conflict between the aggressive dudes (and before anyone writes in – yes, I know this is actually female arachnid aggression that we are dealing with here).

And finally, there is the big one. Why are the journalists taking as read that the number of storms has recently increased due to global warming? Where are they getting their data from? Presumably, each other, because they certainly won’t find it in IPCC AR5.

Of course, none of this will impress any of the MSM; they have their editorial stances and style guides to inform their headlines. So they are free to chill us with the spectre of a new breed of hyper-aggressive spider out to get ya! Indeed, why stick with the one species? Why not just imply that all spiders will mutate into a Mr Hyde version of themselves? And if that doesn’t put you in the same boat as Greta, then how about extending the results to the human race? We’ve all seen the film World War Z. Wasn’t that really a documentary? Alas, faced with the choice of presenting a positive story about species resilience under climate change, versus a story of horrible transformation that portends of our own self-destruction, there was only ever going to be one outcome.

So, it seems that the exploits of Incy are ripe for the re-telling. No longer a tale of adaptability and resolve. Instead, one of aggression and desperation. Might I suggest:

Incy Wincy spider climbed up a waterspout
Along came global warming
To flush the bugger out
Out came the sun
To turn flood into drought
And Incy Wincy spider – went cruising along the high street with a baseball bat in hand looking to beat the living shit out of the first climate change denier she could grasp within her hairy little arms

Okay, the last part doesn’t scan. I’m still working on it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

29 thoughts on “The Revenge of Incy Wincy Spider

  1. I went straight to the NYT article, eager to view a video of a spider’s reaction to a dildo and/or electric toothbrush, but I was disappointed:

    The researchers measured aggression by placing a piece of fluttering paper near a spider web and seeing how many female spiders emerged to attack it over a two minute period.

    Wired was a bit more forthcoming:

    he dropped a shred of paper into each web and, using a modified electric toothbrush, vibrated the paper so it flitted back and forth as though it were alive. Then he’d count the number of spiders that came swarming out to seize it.

    Wired also reveals something interesting about the researcher:

    Years ago, he discovered that A. studiosus have [sic] two distinct personality types: They’re either bold and aggressive or shy and docile…when resources are scarce, aggressive colonies tend to do better… What Pruitt wanted to know was could hurricanes—which rip leaves from trees, blow insects away, and cause rivers to overflow their banks—make these spiders more aggressive?

    Yeah, it looks like they can.

    But Pruitt had already discovered years ago that more aggressive spiders survive better when resources are scarce. So what he’s proved here is that hurricanes, which (we are told) “rip leaves from trees, blow insects away, and cause rivers to overflow their banks” cause food scarcity among sociable spiders. Amazing.

    The Burnin also mentions the toothbrush, but not the dildo. You have to go to the paper itself for more detail. Apparently it was an Oral B Cross Action electric toothbrush and “this is a common method of assessing aggressiveness in web-building spiders.” Well fancy that.

    First, the intrepid scientist wrapped a mechanical toothbrush in wire. He then used it to poke a piece of paper into the spiders’ webs. He found that many of them couldn’t resist the fluttering, insect-resembling pieces of paper. However, some of the spiders tended to hang back. These, Pruitt labeled docile, while the ones that went for the paper were classified as aggressive.

    Call me sceptical, but I’d call a spider who mistook a piece of paper fluttering on the end of a mechanical toothbrush (and what is that?) for a fly thick, not aggressive, though granted the two qualities may go together.

    Mind you, flutter a copy of IPCC AR5 WG1 in front of me, with or without a mechanical toothbrush, and there’s no knowing how I may react.

    The researchers also observed spiders in areas not hit by storms. They found that regardless of intensity, size, and storm duration, more aggressive groups proved more likely to produce egg sacks.

    Hey, doesn’t it take two to produce an egg sack? In a hurricane, wouldn’t a timid male be more likely to cuddle up to an aggressive female, particularly one willing to face up to an intrusive mechanical toothbrush? I know I would.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. “The researchers also observed spiders in areas not hit by storms. They found that regardless of intensity, size, and storm duration, more aggressive groups proved more likely to produce egg sacks.”

    It cannot be universally true that the more aggressive ones always prosper (reproduce) better, after storms or not, because if this were the case, after 300 million years of evolution the docile ones would long ago have been out-evolved. That significant proportions of the population are still docile, assuming the researchers’ identified types are even remotely correct, tells us that they contribute significantly to the population’s overall survival, and there must be specific circumstances where being docile is better. Not to mention that it is a fundamental error in any case to assume that evolution must favour one type over another; the process is far more sophisticated than this and for instance supports balanced polymorphism, i.e. an optimum range of maintained types that best meets multiple and constantly changing challenges for the same geographic population. As John notes, such experiments are far too crude to pick up the evolutionary realities and impacts on the gene pool, even if all the other assumptions about GW and storm frequency etc were true. And 300 million years has also seen many extremes far in excess of even the culturally imagined imminent global catastrophe.

    Like

  3. ANDY WEST

    That significant proportions of the population are still docile, assuming the researchers’ identified types are even remotely correct, tells us that they contribute significantly to the population’s overall survival, and there must be specific circumstances where being docile is better.

    That’s exactly the point I was making when I mentioned in my comment above my natural propensity to identify with the timid male eager to cuddle up to Mrs aggressive A.Studiosus (which shouldn’t be taken as an indication of the relations between Mr and Mrs G. Cambriensis. We’re talking evolutionary survival patterns among arachnids here.)

    The subject, Dr Pruitt, has apparently found out, in decades of research on one of the very few spider species (out of 20,000) to have a social life, a host of interesting things about spiders. About which nobody gave a toss, until he linked his studies to the subject of hurricanes, and hence to global warming. Now he’s all over the internet and his academic future is assured.

    I’m genuinely happy for him because I believe in research into spiders. But I’m unhappy for a world where the only way to get people interested in spiders and evolution and biology in general is to relate it to some subject (global warming catastrophe and the related danger of humanity being reduced to the cannibalism prevalent among arachnids) which evokes the kind of basic instincts which motivate Guardian-reading remainer-voting members of the self-defined élite chattering classes. Surely we can do better than that.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Oh what a tangled web we weave etc…

    I like yr last line. Reminds me of:
    ‘There was a young man of Japan,
    Who’s verses nobody could scan.
    When they sad that the thing
    Doesn’t go with a swing,
    He said, ‘No, but I always try to get as many words into the last line as I possibly can.’

    Like

  5. Beth, would Scotland’s history have been different if Robert had met a docile spider? Or if the Mighty Bruce had arachnophobia?

    Like

  6. John. Thank you for drawing to my attention the existence social spiders to which I previously was unaware. In fact, given the behaviour of female orb spiders to their “brethren”, I would have judged the concept most unlikely. My friend Wiki tells me their are many different, and quite unrelated, types.
    I suppose Hollywood never became aware of them, for the possibilities of creating an arachnophobe’s worst nightmare were never realized.

    Like

  7. Geoff,

    Co-opting global warming in order to attract more interest in one’s studies, services or products is now a well-established marketing ploy. Take, for example, the Odylique range of skin-care products. According to the Odylique Blog’s Ultimate Dry Skin Guide, the following are the most common causes of dry skin:

    “Under-active sebaceous glands
    Skin conditions like eczema and psoriasis
    Too much sun exposure
    Excessive alcohol consumption
    Certain medication
    The ageing process
    Exposure to harsh chemicals or climate change”

    I think we should start a competition to see who can find the most crass example of jumping on the climate change bandwagon. I nominate Odylique Skin Care.

    Like

  8. Andy,

    Precisely. The starting point should be to ask why the timid spiders exist, or, indeed, what lies behind the sociability of this particular species of spider.

    Beth,

    I think it is fair to say that your position as the climate science deniers’ poet laureate is not under threat.

    Alan,

    I don’t think this storyline quite ticks all of the boxes required for Hollywood since there is no giantism involved. In our youth the mysteries of radioactivity would do the trick. Nowadays, CO2 carries the burden of providing the implausible cause. Apparently, it has worked for rats, but the CO2 sponsored giant spider is still eagerly awaited.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. John “the CO2 sponsored giant spider is still eagerly awaited.” Speak for yourself.

    Furthermore I’m not too sure you are correct about the necessity of gigantism to evoke fear in cinema audiences. Remember the Velociraptors in Jurassic Park. It was not their size that evoked fear (they were only pony sized), but their obvious maniacal intelligence and cooperation that mattered. Then there is the case of Hitchcock’s The Birds. He cleverly only used small birds, avoiding obvious potentially dangerous large eagles or vultures. A hoard of small and cooperating intelligent spiders, that could get almost anywhere, would not be pleasant or easy to deal with. And with feely-vision…

    Like

  10. John, as cli-sci-deni-err poet laureate, lol, herewith:

    Webmaster,
    do you ken
    what a disaster
    you spin
    when you seek,
    like Google, Soros
    and leaders of the UN,
    to rule the World.
    the Universe, a
    Federation of Funnel Webs,
    circa 1984 –
    but worse?

    Like

  11. Two classic cinematic examples indicate
    that (large) size doesn’t always matter.
    I know that where you are
    Nod approaches
    but Beth slumber not yet.
    Recall IT could live in a drainpipe
    and comes again.

    Like

  12. The claim of increased aggression does seem to be a little wanting. I have not read the paper, so maybe there is something to it.

    The family in question (Theridiidae) is not known for its aggression. Of course it includes species like the black widow, but my impression is that this species tends to bite defensively (perhaps that is what we are dealing with here). Normally in this family the prey is well wrapped by thrown threads before it is bitten, & the spider bites its prey stiletto-like in the un-armoured leg joints. Here is how Bristowe (The World of Spiders, 1958) charmingly puts it:

    “The first bites of the enswathed insect are like gentle caresses from which the Theridiid draws back quickly at the first sign of a rebuke.”

    A snared insect is often much larger than these spiders and can cause injury to the spider just by thrashing about. Hence the caution.

    The next thing to consider is how sociality has evolved in this species. It seems to me that the species in question (Anelosimus studiosus) is not a truly social species (there is nothing in the spiders to compare to social wasps etc). It probably comes about because webs are close together and often end up connected. Spiders may fight for prey, steal their neighbours meals, etc. Unsurprisingly this may result in selection for lower aggression via the cost of fighting. It is also likely that individuals in adjacent webs are related. Juveniles set up camp near to their mother, and may share her catches.

    Note also that what is termed “aggression” here has no resemblance to that of social wasps, which of course display aggression when foraging far from home. This deals only with aggression directed at a pseudo-insect ensnared in the web. One might expect this to be partly controlled by how hungry the spider is.

    The web in this species is “placed on shrubs and trees, and ordinarily comprises an unsightly mass of dead leaves tied together with silk and serving as a retreat, around which extends a sheet of silk attached to twigs” according to Gertsch (American Spiders, 1949). It does not seem likely that the web could survive a hurricane. Perhaps then subsequently the web is rebuilt by spiders that might not be related and are generally not so tolerant of one another. Gertsch gives the species in question as being a sixth of an inch in length. We have our own Anelosimus in the UK, which is even smaller (3 mm).

    Liked by 2 people

  13. I am on call to be deployed to the disaster area, if there is actually a significant disaster, caused by Dorian.
    The annoying bs of lazy assed pontificating sanctimonious twits like the author of the subject of this post is a wee bit aggravating.
    I swear that it appears that belief in climate catastrophist correlates strongly with stupidity.

    Like

  14. beththeserf,
    As a literary free thinker who’s insights I greatly admire, thank you for being willing to wear the heavy mantle of skeptic laureate.
    If I may ask a favor, please consider a strange combination:
    Faust as BigBrother in a reimagined 1984?

    Liked by 2 people

  15. Alan, Jaime,

    Yes, it looks like I spoke too soon, particularly with regard to the CO2 sponsored giant spider (according to a paper cited by the Conversation article, it seems that wolf spiders in the tundra are growing bigger due to climate change). As for the Conversation article itself, I thought it was one of the better, more thoughtful ones. The question of climate change-induced ecological imbalance is a legitimate one. Unfortunately, it is also one that provides a fertile soil for growing over-hyped concerns. Still, as long as climate change is implicated — where there is a question, there is a grant.

    Like

  16. Spider mania, oo-ooh creepy…

    Rampaging hysteria
    climatic or otherwise,
    beloved of gurus
    who wish ter control ya.

    ( No more jingles fer a while,
    not a laureate, jest a serf.)

    Like

  17. Gladsome am I,
    No laureate adornments
    Impead my path, for
    Jingleization is not my métier,
    Rest dear Beth
    Responsibilities will emerge,
    Along with duties onerous.

    Like

  18. beththeserf,
    What happened to your blog?
    Your in depth, interesting and well thought out views were much appreciated.

    Like

  19. That spiders are threatened by global warming is obvious given that they reach their greatest diversity on the Greenland ice cap and are entirely absent from tropical rain forest.

    Liked by 1 person

  20. JOHN RIDGWAY (7.45AM 30 Aug 2019)
    Despite my exposure to five of your seven causes of dry skin, namely “too much sun exposure; excessive alcohol consumption; certain medication; the ageing process; and exposure to harsh chemicals or climate change” I have never suffered from dry skin, no doubt because I don’t tick the box “Under-active sebaceous glands.”

    So climate change and the other bugaboos won’t get me.

    Odylique Skin Care’s impeccable logic can be applied to more serious problems than dry skin. Take the likely hundreds of millions of deaths due to wars, famine, disease (and now cannibalism in imitation of our social spider cousins) induced or made worse by climate change. Imagine you’re living in some region ravaged by disease, assailed by religious fanatics, or bombarded by friendly powers protecting you from same religious fanatics. Access to food, medicine, clean water, and (if you’re among the top 1% of the population) electricity for the air conditioning, is limited. And what’s more, global temperatures are rising by an average of slightly more than one hundredth of a degree per year.

    No wonder the WHO and the BMA are having kittens. As if being bombed to shit by British-made weaponry wasn’t enough, the citizens of Yemen, Afghanistan and a few dozen other countries are having to suffer the additional burden of climate change. And now we learn they may start behaving like spiders.

    Liked by 1 person

  21. Yes, Geoff, all of that. But remember that dry skin would be a thing of the past if they were to use Odylique, the only skin care product guaranteed to guard against the effects of climate change. Says, Greta Thunberg, “Whenever I’m sailing across the Atlantic to save our planet from climate-induced cannibalism, I always make sure to take a bottle of Odylique with me. It suits me, and it suits my way of life.”

    Mmm Oh-dee-leek.

    Like

  22. Pingback: Global Warming may be making baboons less aggressive – are humans next? | Climate Scepticism

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.