Seeking Employment: Skilled spider biologist seeking opportunities to serve as a scientific consultant on movies starring or utilizing spiders in the plot. Horror, adventure, or romance-themed films, all acceptable. Knowledgeable biologist will provide the insight to greatly enhance plots and increase thrills by providing more engaging, realistic, and terrifying reality-based spiders than is currently provided by screenwriters who lack depth in their understanding of these animals. Has watched Arachnophobia more than 20 times and recognizes how that film relied on enough realistic biology to be especially powerful.
Truth is, I’m not really looking for work. But when science can help inform dramas built all around it, a case can be made for utilizing the knowledge we scientists have to make a story really come to life with pretty amazing aspects of the natural world. Enter Lavalantula, the latest “animal + natural disaster” film from the SyFy channel. It’s intended to be silly and over the top. It has giant tarantulas that emerge from a volcano and are capable of spewing lava themselves as they randomly attack humans, wreck buses, and take over Los Angeles. While the film is mildly enjoyable in its campiness, it does not take advantage of having large spiders as the central theme. Even the animation of the titular “lavalantulas” leaves much to be desired—a single model that was varied in size but not in any other trait throughout the film. Spiders are too amazing to have been misused this way!
If I had been hired on as a scientific advisor to this film, I would have made a number of suggestions that would have boosted its scientific accuracy—and may well have improved the drama. For example, one suggestion would have been to use spitting spiders (from the genus Scytodes) as the model spiders. All spiders have fangs with a hollow tube through which venom flows from the poison glands and then is injected into the prey. But spitting spiders have done something remarkable—through evolution, they’ve modified their venom glands into glue glands! When attacking, a spitting spiders rears backwards, rapidly vibrates its fangs side to side at a rate of 72 times a second, and spits a fast-drying, sticky glue-like substance through the fangs that pins its prey to a surface. Once the prey is stuck, the spider comes close, bites down, and pulls the meal out while wrapping it up with its hind legs. Because glue is coming out of each fang as the spider moves backwards, the result looks like two overlapping nets tossed by gladiators. I once watched a spitting spider chase a large wolf spider down, spit its nets of glue, and then haul the spider up over a meter to its web. Imagine that the volcano had been erupting giant spitting spiders that pinned entire neighborhoods of people to the sidewalks and hauled people up skyscrapers?
Alternatively, if the screenwriters were committed to using tarantulas as the models, I would have recommended a number of changes to take advantage of powerful adaptations that already exist in nature. First, I would have suggested that they use sleek, leggy, arboreal tarantulas instead of a stocky ground-dwelling tarantula for the model. Arboreal tarantulas, such as the lovely ornamental tarantulas (Poecilotheria species), are built for speed, and in our hypothetical movie would climb over buses and up and down buildings as deftly as their (would-be) real-life models move up and down trees. Their adaptations include long legs with undersides covered with patches of iridescent hairs, called scopula, that help hold the spiders onto any surface. These scopula hold onto thin layers of water and could essentially act like suction cups to hold large arboreal spiders on the sides of skyscrapers.
To further up the gore factor: real spiders have external digestion, which is far grosser than the Lavalantula spiders that flame-broil prey and chew it up. Most spiders inject their prey with a venom cocktail to kill or paralyze it. They then regurgitate digestive enzymes that dissolve the prey outside their body. Most large spiders also crush the prey with their chelicerae (fangs and the base of the fangs which may have teeth-like ridges), while the digestive enzymes break the prey down into a protein milkshake that is then sucked down through the mouth. Unlike the spiders shown in the film, they do not have bottom jaws that can chew prey. Not just stranger than fiction—more interesting imo.
Like all predators, spiders hunt for their prey, but are rarely reported to go on killing rampages as seen in Lavalantula. Even the hungriest large spider would have settled down to digest its prey before looking for more. It is rare to have spider species that are aggressive or deliberately bite humans. In thinking about cranky species, I would have picked the Sydney funnel web spiders of Australia which rank among the most ill-natured in my experience. They too rear backwards with their fangs out, literally dripping venom, for many minutes. It’s an impressive display, combined with a forceful bite to back it up. But this is a typical defensive display, rather than an offensive habit directed against humans.
The biggest “only in a movie” trope was the concept of a single queen who lays all the offspring—with the convenient consequence that, if she is killed, all the other spiders will die with her. This idea was also used (albeit with more justification) in Arachnophobia. It is true that among the highly social (eusocial) insects (all ants and termites and the social bees and social wasps), most colonies have a single queen that lays all of the eggs. But even if these insect queens are killed, it takes time for their offspring workers to die of old age. The situation is different in the one percent of spiders that are social and live in groups. All social spiders are capable of reproducing—there are no sterile workers. In most social spider species, there are many reproducing females in each colony. Killing one queen would simply result in other females producing offspring and certainly wouldn’t result in all of the animals dying at once. Either the entire colony would need to be killed, or the spiders hunted down one by one.
Again, anyone need a scientific consultant for their next spider film? I can recommend a good one.
Rating: 1 out of 5 spiders