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Thursday, June 30, 2011

7) Jumping Spider & Jellyfish

Salticidae & Medusozoa

So far on this blog I’ve mostly stuck to cute animals.  Things with feathers; things with fur: apart from that one post about aphids I’ve taken the safe option.  I suspect birds, especially, are going to feature heavily on this blog: for one thing they’re the most noticeable of all the groups of animals; also, I know more about them than I do about any other group of animals.  Don’t be surprised to see a lot of birds around here in the future.

I think a lot of people, when they think of animals, might not even think very far beyond birds or mammals.  They might stretch their imagination to fish, or reptiles – maybe even amphibians: who doesn’t like frogs?  I don’t imagine, though, that many people spend a lot of time contemplating the lives of ants, or slugs, or scorpions.  They’re too alien, too unknowable; too frightening, frankly, in their otherness.

Yet, they’re animals all the same.  However remote from us an ant, or a slug, or a scorpion might seem, the distance between them and humans is negligible compared to the distance between any of us and, say, an oak tree, or a pine mushroom, or an Escherichia coli bacterium.  So, surely, it must be possible for us humans to identify some kind of kinship with all the ants, and slugs, and scorpions, and scores and scores of other invertebrates out there?

If you go right down to the basics, you’ll find a profound connection between us humans and not just our fellow animals but every living thing on earth, regardless of its size or form: at root, every living thing on this planet is made up of the same very small handful of chemicals: guanine, cytosine, adenine, and thymine.  These are the four chemicals that, matched up in various configurations, form the core of deoxyribonucleic acid – DNA, that is.  Somehow, the size and form and everything else about every living thing on earth – every ant, every slug, every scorpion, every oak tree and pine mushroom and Escherichia coli bacterium and everything else – are encoded by DNA, which is essentially just long strings of paired units of the same four base chemicals.  If that doesn’t give a person a sense of profound and very real connection to every living organism on earth, I don’t know what will.

It’s all a bit abstract, though, isn’t it?  It’s all very well knowing that I’ve got DNA and so has that mushroom I’m having in my dinner tonight, but DNA doesn’t exactly announce itself and unless I sit down to actually think about it the mushroom becomes just another thing to buy at the supermarket so that I won’t go hungry.  Animals barely fare any better: there’s a certain level of kinship with possums, and Willie Wagtails, and even bats, because we can recognise something of ourselves in them: shared habits and curiosities, a shared structure.  However strange a bird might seem, it’s still got two nostrils and two eyes and four limbs – radically different in form from our own, granted, but they’re there.  We can recognise something of ourselves in them.  What if the animal doesn’t have four limbs, though?  What if it has eight?

I suspect that for many people the combination of the words “jumping” and “spider” is one of the more terrifying in the animal kingdom.  Like snakes, spiders represent for us two of the most visceral of fears: fear of being bitten, and fear of being poisoned; added to that fear of being jumped upon, fear of being set upon unexpectedly, and you’ve got what I imagine must be for a lot of us something peculiarly terrifying.

There’s another peculiarly human emotion, though, which is a bit difficult to quantify but which might be described as “the thrill of knowledge”.  For all that we may be tempted to wax rhapsodic about the romanticism of the universe’s depthless mysteries, we are by nature curious animals and we’re all driven to investigate, to discover, and to understand.  When I was a child I came to be delighted at noticing a jumping spider crawling about on the bricks or through the flowers of my parents’ back garden.  Unlike vertebrates, invertebrates are so numerous and many of them so similar that to somebody not trained in their identification it’s easiest to just lump them all in together: “creepy-crawlies”; “bugs”.  So to a young would-be naturalist such as myself the extraordinary uniformity of jumping spiders’ appearance was a boon: here was a group of creatures creeping around in the undergrowth that I could instantly identify and classify; here was a way in to that most secret of animal worlds.  The distinctive huge, block-shaped head and enormous front eyes that all jumping spiders, regardless of species, have in common are like a uniform that puts them all on the same team.

Those eyes are astonishing.  Apart from their behaviour, I think the thing that most unnerves us about spiders is their very otherness: eight legs and eight eyes is a body structure that’s impossible for us humans to imagine ourselves into.  Jumping spiders, though, have two forward-facing eyes which are enormously more prominent than their other eyes, and it gives them something that we can begin to recognise as a face.  Except – those eyes are so utterly unlike our own, at least in appearance: they’re too large, grotesquely so; and they’re disconcertingly empty, just two huge, black orbs which offer us no way in, which are completely expressionless and disturbingly unyielding.  When we look into the eyes of a mammal, or a bird, or even a lizard, we’re seeing something that we can readily recognise as akin to ourselves, however remotely.  We can see a creature that’s examining us with roughly the same emotions and instincts as those we find in ourselves.  For all that we might appreciate the basic necessities of a jumping spider’s life – food, shelter, procreation – when we get down close and look into its eyes, the animal itself becomes utterly unknowable.

If a jumping spider is unknowable, what, then, to make of a jellyfish?  Eyes are the least of it – a jellyfish doesn’t have anything that we can recognise as our own.  No brain; no central nervous system; no digestive system; no respiratory system; no circulatory system.  And yet for all that they lack, they’re animals as much as we are.  Somewhere, somehow, there’s a connection to be found.

If not in anatomy, perhaps in behaviour: jellyfish can be surprisingly social animals.  Haven’t grown up inland I’ve only seen jellyfish on a handful of occasions, but each time I’ve seen them they’ve been in numbers.  People all over the world will be familiar with the Portuguese Man o’ War (Physalia physalis), in Australia more commonly known as the Bluebottle.  They’re a common sight washed up along the tide line, and as a child one of the first things I learned about going to the beach was not to go near one if I saw it.  More recently, I’ve stood on the deck of a cross-Baltic ferry and looked down into the water to see jellyfish by the thousands swarming just below the surface; the one and only time I visited the bay-side Melbourne suburb of Williamstown I walked out onto the pier and saw a much smaller but no less obvious cluster of jellyfish (a little online research leads me to conclude they were probably Moon Jellyfish (Aurelia aurita)).  I’ve seen scores of dead jellyfish the size of dinner-plates washed up on a remote beach in south-western Tasmania.  There’s some strong biological imperative going on here which, if we strip the endless complexities we humans tend to upon our behaviour, I think we’ll recognise in ourselves: I live by myself, I work from home, and I’m going to be going out tonight not just because there’s a good gig happening in town but because I need to socialise, to put myself in a group.  Surely there’s not so much difference between a crowd of people at a bar and a swarm of jellyfish beneath a pier.

But I’m clutching at straws here.  Ultimately, I think the question I intended to address when I started this post may be the wrong question altogether.  I think, perhaps, that instead of asking myself how we humans can relate to invertebrates, I should have been asking: why does it matter?  Why is it necessary to find some kind of equivalency in another animal in order to value it?  There’s a strange tendency in contemporary society to equate “difference” with “inferiority”.  We’re terrified of suggesting that one person, or one group of people, may have a different set of skills from other people – as if by doing so we would be making some kind of value judgement.  Surely we can recognise that a jellyfish or a jumping spider – or an ant, or a slug, or a scorpion for that matter – doesn’t need to be just like us to be worth cherishing.  Surely we can realise that an animal doesn’t need to be relatable on some human level – or even on the molecular level – in order to be worth cherishing.  The fact that it exists at all is extraordinary enough.

Jumping spider image sourced from  /  Moon Jellyfish image sourced from

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