NEW YORK, NY.-
Spiders Alive!, a new exhibition on view at the American Museum of Natural History
from July 28, 2012, through December 2, 2012, features approximately 20 species of live spiders and highlights this intriguing animal groups anatomy, behavior, and unique characteristics. The Museum, which has the worlds largest research collection of spiders, has been at the forefront of studying spider diversity for over 75 years. For centuries, spiders have inspired mythmakers from Ovid to E. B. White to the creators of the eponymous superhero, but their actual role in diverse ecosystems around the globe is just as captivating.
Among the most versatile animals on the planet, spiders inhabit every continent but Antarctica and are able to survive in environments that range from deserts to rainforests to crowded cities. They can be easy to miss, in part because many are secretive or too tiny to catch human eyes, but spiders are important predators. Without them, insect populations would explode. By one estimate, the spiders on one acre of woodland alone consume more than 80 pounds of insects a year. Scientists have identified more than 43,000 species to date and think there are at least as many out there to be discovered.
"Spiders Alive! continues a tradition of Museum exhibitions that bring people, especially children and families, face-to-face with ambassadors from the natural world," said Ellen V. Futter, President of the American Museum of Natural History. "In this exhibition, as in previous popular presentations of live lizards, snakes, frogs, and butterflies, our visitors will meet some of the worlds most exotic and fascinating creatures who have much to teach us about the diversity of life, the fragility of natural systems, and our own responsibility to study and steward life on Earth."
"Spiders Alive! represents a new type of exhibition for the Museum," said Norman Platnick, curator emeritus in the Division of Invertebrate Zoology and curator of Spiders Alive!. "In addition to using a wide range of live arachnidsincluding scorpions, tarantulas, and orb-weaversviewers will be able to interact directly with explainers, Museum staff, and volunteers who will highlight some of the fascinating aspects of the structure and behavior of these diverse organisms in a regularly scheduled program of live demonstrations. This exhibition also gives us a chance to showcase some of our recent research, both in the field and in the lab."
Spiders, which are not insects, belong to the class Arachnida along with scorpions, mites, whip scorpions, and harvestmen, among others. Whereas insects have six legs, a three-part body, antennae and usually wings, and compound eyes, spiders have eight legs, a two-part body, no antennae or wings, and simple eyes.
In Spiders Alive!, visitors explore spiders anatomy and evolutionary history, learn about their signature traitsvenom and silk-makingand be surprised by little-known defense mechanisms such as mimicry and noise-making. In addition to live spiders representing approximately 20 species, the exhibition also includes larger-than-life models of spiders, a climbable spider model 50 times life size, and a rare 100-million-year-old fossil of a spider in limestone. A robot prototype, inspired by spiders and created to be light and agile to tackle unstable ground, is also on display. Museum staff will be presenting live arachnids for visitors to see up close, and the exhibition focuses on debunking spider myths such as that spiders need gravity to build webs, that all spiders neglect their offspring, and that all spider bites are harmful to humans. Videos featured in the exhibition include a short feature about Curator Norman Platnicks field expedition to study goblin spiders in Ecuador, a short narrated program about the dazzling variety of spiders, and segments showing spiders in action: a diving bell spider living underwater, a southern black widow spinning silk, and an orb weaver constructing its web.
Among the live spiders visitors will encounter in this exhibition are the goliath bird eater, one of the largest spiders in the world, whose prey includes snakes, mice, and frogs; the western black widow, a member of one of the few North American spider groups that can be harmful to people; the fishing spider, which senses prey by resting its front legs on the surface of the water; and the golden orb-web spider, which weaves a golden web that can reach more than 3 feet in diameter. Species from other arachnid orders will also be on display, including African whip spiders, whose whip-like feelers, up to 10 inches in length, help the animal find its way; the giant vinegaroon, which may spray a foul-smelling vinegar-like chemical from its abdomen if disturbed; and the desert hairy scorpion, the largest scorpion in America.
At the entrance to the exhibition, visitors encounter a striking spider sculpture by the late French-born American artist Louise Bourgeois. Famous for her renderings of arachnid forms, the artist evoked her beloved mothera weaverwho was "deliberate, clever, patient, soothing, reasonable, dainty, subtle, indispensable, neat, and as useful as a spider."
The Introduction welcomes visitors with three live examples of ornamental tarantulas that can be as colorful as tropical birds, a sharp contrast to the fearsome, dark, and dangerous creatures many might imagine.
Anatomy highlights spiders anatomical features and behaviors. Hanging above this section is a 40-foot-long model of the golden orb-web spider (Nephila pilipes)an impressive spider found in Asia and Australia. While unique in many ways, it also shares some basic characteristics with other spiders: eight eyes; a carapace, which is sometimes compared to a crabs shell, that covers a spiders front half; four pairs of legs, each with seven segments covered with tiny hairs that enable the spider to taste and sense vibrations; an abdomen; narrow ―waist‖ connecting the two body segments; and feelers for touching, tasting, and handling prey.
Diversity reveals the astonishing variety of spider habitats, reproductive behaviors, life spans, appearances, and hunting styles. Spiders evolved more than 300 million years ago, long before dinosaurs walked the Earth. The rarity of spider fossils makes it difficult to pinpoint when the group first appeared. Spiders do not preserve well in sediment because they have a relatively soft ―shell,‖ or exoskeleton; in fact, for every 1,000 or so insect fossils found, theres only one spider. This section includes a rare 100-million-year-old fossil of a spider in limestone. Also on display is a spider trapped in tree resin about 20 million years ago. Over time, the resin fossilized into amber, preserving the animal inside.
Venom examines the powerful concoction of biological agents that most spiders usually employ to paralyze their target. Since spiders eat almost any suitable animal that comes their way, their venoms have to work on a variety of creatures, mostly insects. Each species has its own complex mixture made up of dozens of different ingredients. This section includes a vial of antivenom for black widow bites and a large model of a brown recluses cheliceraepaired structures that help the spider grasp food, dig, and inject prey with venom. Other defensive measures discussed include giving up a leg to escape a predator, using mimicry to blend into its surroundings, and, in the case of many tarantulas, flicking sharp hairs from their abdomens that can become embedded in the targets skin, eyes, and respiratory tract.
Silk explores the many ways this extraordinary materialwhich is extremely strong, elastic, and lightweightis important to spiders. Spiders use silk to build webs, protect eggs, wrap their prey, and as a safety line or a sail. Humans have been coming up with ways to use silk for centuries, although to date, mass production of synthetic silk remains elusive. This section includes a real silver argiope spider web, which has been colored and preserved. Its most striking feature, an 'X running through it, is something of a mystery. Many spiders embellish their webs with these designs, called stabilimenta, but the reason is unknown. Scientists think stabilimenta may attract insects by reflecting light, warn birds away, or camouflage the spider from predators.
Conservation discusses how spiders, like many other animals, are threatened by habitat destruction and introduced species. Due to their small size, spiders can be overlooked in conservation planning. Researchers from institutions around the world, including the Museum, are studying these animals and working on identifying biodiversity hotspots, or small areas of particular biological importance. The Museums collectionthe largest in the world, with more than 1 million spider specimensis a crucial tool for documenting the worlds spider diversity and planning for the animals protection. For example, only 459 species of goblin spiders were known in late 2006. Today, the count is up to more than 1,000, thanks to an ongoing global study led by Museum researchers.