Don’t like spiders? Here are 10 reasons to change your mind



Hostile reactions to spiders are harming conservation efforts.
Karim Rezk/Flickr

Leanda Denise Mason, Curtin University

Australia is famous for its supposedly scary spiders. While the sight of a spider may cause some people to shudder, they are a vital part of nature. Hostile reactions are harming conservation efforts – especially when people kill spiders unnecessarily.

Populations of many invertebrate species, including certain spiders, are highly vulnerable. Some species have become extinct due to habitat loss and degradation.




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In dramatic efforts to avoid or kill a spider, people have reportedly crashed their cars, set a house on fire, and even caused such a commotion that police showed up.

A pathological fear of spiders, known as arachnophobia, is of course, a legitimate condition. But in reality, we have little to fear. Read on to find out why you should love, not loathe, our eight-legged arachnid friends.

A male peacock spider. Spiders are a vital part of nature.
She’s Got Legs/Caitlin Henderson

1. Spiders haven’t killed anyone in Australia for 40 years

The last confirmed fatal spider bite in Australia occurred in 1979.

Only a few species have venom that can kill humans: some mouse spiders (Missulena species), Sydney Funnel-webs (Atrax species) and some of their close relatives. Antivenom for redbacks (Latrodectus hasseltii) was introduced in 1956, and for funnel-webs in 1980. However, redback venom is no longer considered life-threatening.

2. Spiders save us from the world’s deadliest animal

Spiders mostly eat insects, which helps control their populations. Their webs – especially big, intricate ones like our orb weavers’ – are particularly adept at catching small flying insects such as mosquitos. Worldwide, mosquito-borne viruses kill more humans than any other animal.

3. They can live to an impressive age

The world’s oldest recorded spider was a 43- year-old female trapdoor spider (Gaius villosus) that lived near Perth, Western Australia. Tragically a wasp sting, not old age, killed her.

4. Spider silk is amazing

Spider silk is the strongest, most flexible natural biomaterial known to man. It has historically been used to make bandages, and UK researchers have worked out how to load silk bandages with antibiotics. Webs of the golden orb spider, common throughout Australia, are strong enough to catch bats and birds, and a cloak was once woven entirely from their silk.

Golden orb weaver (Trichonephila edulis)
Caitlin Henderson/She’s Got Legs

5. Their venom could save our life

The University of Queensland is using spider venom to develop non-addictive pain-killers. The venom rapidly immobilises prey by targeting its nervous system – an ability that can act as a painkiller in humans.




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The venom from a Fraser Island funnel web contains a molecule that delays the effects of stroke on the brain. Researchers are investigating whether it could be administered by paramedics to protect a stroke victim on the way to hospital.

Funnel-web venom is also being used to create targeted pesticides which are harmless to birds and mammals.

6. They could compete at Little Athletics

The Australian huntsman (Family Sparassidae) can run 40 body lengths per second, about eight times faster than the fastest human runners.

Other spiders have great throwing skills. To catch moths, the bolas spider spins a thread with a sticky glob of silk on the end. The glob mimics the scent of a female moth. When a male moth comes to investigate, the spider throws the glob at the moth, catches it then reels it in.

7. Spiders want to be left alone

Spiders are not aggressive and will either try to run away from people, or defend themselves. Many are exceptional at hiding or camouflaging themselves, in the hope we don’t even see them.

Wrap-around spiders (Dolophones species) flatten themselves around branches to hide during the day, then come out to build webs at night.

A wrap-around spider (Dolophones species) is a master of camouflage.
Caitlin Henderson/She’s Got Legs

Bird-dropping spiders hide by looking like, yes, bird-droppings.

The Western Australian shield-back trapdoor spiders (Idiosoma species) uses its unusually hard abdomen to “plug” its tunnel when a predator enters, creating an impenetrable shield.

Trapdoor spiders live in burrows with a silken lid that shuts tight, then gets covered in dirt or leaf litter.

Trapdoor burrows of an Idiosoma species open (left) and closed (right)
Author provided

8. Spiders have very unusual sex lives

It’s well known that some female spiders eat their partners during or after sex. But male Tasmanian cave spiders have evolved to avoid this fate. They use kinks in their legs to pin the female’s fangs apart while they mate, which can prevent her from killing him. These spiders are so fascinating, they are the subject of a documentary, Sixteen Legs

More generally, male spiders use their “hands” (called pedipalps), to transfer sperm into female spider “vaginas” (called epigynes).

During courtship, Australian male peacock spiders display their colourful abdomen to the female by using some pretty impressive dance moves.

9. Spiders are great mothers

Some female spiders produce milk for their young, or even sacrifice themselves as food. All spider mothers protect their babies, called spiderlings. However trapdoor spider mothers allow spiderlings to live in the home burrow for nine months, before they dig their own burrows nearby.

A wolf spider carrying her spiderlings.
She’s Got Legs/Caitlin Henderson

10. Humans need spiders to survive

It is important to remember that spiders and other invertebrates – animals without spines – make up 98% of animal species. They are vital to the functioning of ecosystems; without them, the remaining 2% of vertebrates, including humans, could not survive.

OK, OK. I care about spiders. Now what?

Spread the word to your friends and family that spiders should be cared for.

By all means, teach children that certain spiders require caution, and should be admired from a safe distance. But if your child has an irrational fear of spiders, address this as early as possible. Encourage positive interest in the spider world by exposing children to books and movies with spiders as the lead protagonists, such as Charlotte’s Web and Spiderman.

Research has shown that adults can overcome fear of spiders through frequent exposure. So be sure to share images of spiders with your arachnaphobic friends!

Caitlin Henderson contributed to this article.




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Curious Kids: What are spider webs made from and how strong are they?


The Conversation


Leanda Denise Mason, Associate Lecturer, Curtin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

There’s only one way to make bushfires less powerful: take out the stuff that burns



Hazard reduction burns reduce bushfire fuel loads, but the current approach is not working.
Mick Tsikas/AAP

Rod Keenan, University of Melbourne

As monstrous blazes overwhelm Australia’s south-east, the need for a national bushfire policy has never been more urgent. Active land management such as hazard-reduction burning and forest thinning must lie at the core of any such policy.

Done well, controlled burning limits a bushfire’s spread and makes suppression easier, by reducing the amount of flammable material. Clearing or thinning vegetation on roadsides and other areas also helps maintain fuel breaks, allowing firefighters access to forests in an emergency.




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As former fire chiefs recently pointed out, of all factors driving a fire’s severity – temperature, wind speed, topography, fuel moisture and fuel load – fuel load is the only one humans can influence.

The royal commission into Victoria’s Black Saturday bushfires identified serious shortcomings in land and fuel management, primarily the domain of the states. Ten years ago I also called for a national approach to bushfires, including vegetation management.

Relatively little has changed since. It is as though Australia suffers collective and institutional amnesia when it comes to bushfire preparedness. But the threat will only escalate. Australia must have a sustained commitment to better land management.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison, meeting South Australian firefighters, says bushfire management is a state responsibility.
AAP/Kelly Barnes

The three pillars of dealing with bushfires

Bushfire management comprises three planks: preparation, response and recovery.

Preparation involves managing fuel loads and vegetation, maintaining access to tracks and fire breaks, planning fire response and ensuring sufficient human capacity and resources to respond to worst-case scenarios.

Response involves deploying aircraft, fire trucks and firefighting personnel, and recovery requires social, financial and institutional support.




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The federal government mostly focuses on bushfire response and recovery, which now falls under the Department of Home Affairs and the responsible Minister for Natural Disaster and Emergency Management, David Littleproud.

After major fire events in the 2000s, the Commonwealth committed significant resources to response. This included contributing to the cost of more fire-fighting planes and helicopters, and research funding.

A helicopter tackling a bushfire in Victoria’s East Gippsland.
Victorian government

But what about fire preparation?

Prescribed burning is considered a key element of bushfire preparation. While there is some debate over its effect on a fire’s impact, the Victorian bushfire royal commission concluded fuel modification at a sufficient scale can reduce the impact of even high-intensity fires.

Other management actions include thinning dense forest areas, reducing the shrub layer mechanically where burning is not possible and maintaining fire breaks. As the climate changes, we may consider changing the tree species mix.

The newly merged Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment is the federal agency with most interest in land management. However other agencies such as the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources share some responsibilities.

Federal funding for land management deals with single issues such as weeds, feral animals, threatened species or water quality. Funding is often piecemeal, doled out to government bodies or community groups with little coordination. As federal programs are implemented, states often withdraw funding.

Former NSW Fire and Rescue commissioner Greg Mullins and other experts have warned fuel reduction burning is “constrained by a shortage of resources in some states and territories”, as well as by warmer, drier weather which reduces the number of days burning can be undertaken.

A hazard reduction operation by the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service in the Blue Mountains. Fire experts say such services are underfunded.
Mick Tsikas/AAP

At state level, since the major fires of the 2000s, funding for fire management has increased and coordination between fire response and land management agencies has improved.

However, the focus of the two groups remains divided, which can thwart progress. Fire services prioritise protecting lives and property once fires are going, while forest and land management agencies focus on reducing fire risk, and must consider a wider range of natural and community values.

In a rapidly changing climate, land management requires a long-term adaptive strategy, underpinned by sound analysis and research, supporting laws and policies, with sufficient funding and human resources. Bipartisan political support and leadership continuity is needed to sustain it.

A national approach

State agencies cannot carry the full financial burden for fire preparedness. With fire events happening in almost all states and territories, it is clear we need a national approach.

The federal government collects most tax revenue and should contribute a greater share of the costs of prescribed burning, maintaining access, fire detection, and rapid firefighting response.

Federal spending on land management can be better integrated to engage and protect communities, conserve biodiversity, maintain water quality, manage forest carbon emissions and improve forest resilience to future fires. Recent federal investments in savannah burning in northern Australia are a good example of this.

The Gospers Mountain Fire at Bilpin, NSW.
DAN HIMBRECHTS/AAP

A federal bureau of bushfire and land management could support national policy and coordinate investment, including monitoring and reporting on forest and land condition. State agencies, local authorities and private landowners could continue to provide management to meet national targets.

Commitment to public education is also critical. Many people do not understand the need for appropriate human interventions, such as prescribed burning or thinning, to protect the forests we all enjoy. We must also learn from traditional owners about how to live in our country and manage land with fire.

In December, the federal government initiated an inquiry into the efficacy of vegetation and land management and bushfires. This inquiry needs to be expanded, avoiding the simplified debates of the past, and bring together all parties to identify solutions.




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As one of the most urbanised countries on Earth, there are few votes to be gained in more spending on rural land management. Hazard reduction is a sometimes risky, labour-intensive measure, and tensions between reducing fuel loads and conserving the environment must be managed.

However after the grief, anger and recriminations from these fires have passed, it’s time for an urgent national rethink – and the Morrison government must lead the way.The Conversation

Rod Keenan, Professor, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The bushfires are horrendous, but expect cyclones, floods and heatwaves too



Bushfires are not the only weather and climate events set to ravage Australia in coming months.
Dave Hunt/AAP

Neville Nicholls, Monash University

Public attention on the disastrous bushfire crisis in Australia will rightly continue for weeks to come. But as we direct resources to coping and recovery, we should not forget other weather and climate challenges looming this summer.

The peak time for heatwaves in southern Australia has not yet arrived. Many parts of Australia can expect heavy rains and flooding. And northern Australia’s cyclone season is just gearing up.

The events will stretch the ability of emergency services and the broader community to cope. The best way to prepare for these events is to keep an eye on Bureau of Meteorology forecasts.

Fires and other extreme events will test emergency services this summer.
Darren Pateman/AAP

Let it rain

2019 was Australia’s driest year on record. Since early winter the Bureau of Meteorology has correctly predicted the development of these widespread dry conditions.

But relief may be coming. The latest bureau outlooks suggest more normal summer conditions from February to April. If it eventuates, this would include more rain.




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The arrival of drought-breaking rains is notoriously hard to predict – in the past, they have come any time between January and May. Global warming is also complicating seasonal climate predictions.

We all hope the rain arrives sooner rather than later, and eases the fire situation. But rain will bring other risks.

Continental-scale droughts such as that experienced over the past few years are often broken by widespread heavy rains, leading to an increased risk of flooding including potentially lethal flash floods. The decade-long Millenium drought that ended in 2009 was followed by two extremely wet years with serious flooding.

A similar situation was seen in Indonesia in recent days when very heavy rains after a prolonged drought produced disastrous floods and landslides.

Indonesian rescuers searching for missing people after a landslide in West Java, Indonesia, triggered by heavy rain.
EPA

The flood risk is exacerbated by the bare soil and lack of vegetation caused by drought, and by bushfires that destroy forest and grassland.

Australia’s north may be particularly hard hit. The onset of the tropical wet season has been very much delayed, as the bureau predicted. Over the last three months, some parts of the Australian tropics had their lowest ever October-December rainfall. But there are some suggestions widespread rain may be on its way.

Further south, drought-breaking rains can also be heavy and widespread, leading to increased flood risk. So even when the drought breaks and rains quell the fires, there will likely still be bouts of extreme weather, and high demand for emergency services.

Cyclones and heatwaves

The tropical cyclone season has been much delayed, as predicted by the bureau, although there are now signs of cyclonic activity in the near future.

Cyclones often bring welcome rains to drought-affected communities. But we should not overlook the serious damage these systems may bring such as coastal flooding and wind damage – again requiring intervention from emergency services.




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And we are still a month away from the riskiest time for heatwaves in southern Australia. We’ve already had some severe heatwaves this summer. However they usually peak in the middle and end of summer, so the worst may be yet to come.

Lives have undoubtedly been saved this summer by improved forecasting of high temperatures and better dissemination of heatwave information by state and local governments. But after an already devastating early summer of fires and heat, warning fatigue may set in amongst both warning providers and the public. We must ensure heatwave warnings continue to be disseminated to populations at risk, and are acted on.

Shop staff clean up storm waters after Cyclone Debbie hit iQueensland in 2017.
AAP

Be thankful for weather forecasters

The recent experience of farmers, fire fighters, water resource managers and communities illustrate the value of the service provided by the Bureau of Meteorology. Greatly improved weather and climate forecasting developed over the past few decades means communities can plan for and deal with our highly variable weather and climate far better than in the past.




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Recent drought, fires and heatwaves – exacerbated by global warming – have been devastating. But imagine if we only had the limited weather forecast capabilities of even a few decades ago, without today’s high-speed computers to run weather forecast models, and satellites to feed in enormous amounts of data. How much worse would the impacts have been?

These forecasts have allowed heat alerts to be disseminated to vulnerable communities. Detailed information on weather conducive to fire spread has helped fire agencies provide more targeted warnings and direct resources appropriately.

An air tanker makes a pass to drop fire retardant on a bushfire in North Nowra, NSW, as fires spread rapidly.
Mick Tsikas/AAP

Never before have weather forecasts been so readily available to the public. Here are ways you can use them to reduce risks to life and property during an extreme event:

  • Listen to ABC local radio for emergency updates and detailed Bureau of Meteorology forecasts
  • load your state fire service emergency app onto your phone and check it regularly. Or check out the information online, such as at the NSW Rural Fire Service’s Fires Near Me website
  • check the bureau’s website for climate and weather forecasts
  • download a short-range rainfall forecast app such as Rain Parrot onto your phone. These apps use the bureau’s radar data to make short-range forecasts of rainfall for your location, and notify you if rain is coming.

Global warming is already lengthening the fire season and making heatwaves more intense, more frequent, and longer. It is also increasing the likelihood of heavy rains, and making droughts worse.

We must keep adapting to these changing threats, and further improve our ability to forecast them. And the community must stay aware of the many weather and climate extremes that threaten lives and property.The Conversation

Neville Nicholls, Professor emeritus, School of Earth, Atmosphere and Environment, Monash University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.