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April 18, 2012

Borneo’s Jumping Spiders

Tom McLaughlin

Kuching, Malaysian Borneo – I really don’t like spiders and I never have. But I realize there are those on this planet who find them fascinating.


However, I have never found a person so dedicated to their cause than a researcher from Canada who has not only been studying spiders but a particular variety known as Jumping Spiders. He has made it his life’s vocation for over 40 years.


Everybody knows about these critters. They are the ones that look you in the face and then spring like a recently-fired bullet trailing a wisp of silk. My reaction is to jump and manically brush myself off thinking they landed on my arm and will next jump to consume my eyeball.


After a shudder a two, I usually stomp on the ground hoping it landed in the vicinity of about a meter (three feet for the Americans) and make sure everything is dead within that radius. As the last shiver passes through me, I resume my activity, eyes wide and still alert for the rest of the family.


However, the professor assured us that in his 40 years he has only been bitten twice. My reaction was “and you are still alive?” Then he blamed himself and not the spider.


One time, he said, he reached into the spider’s home and the mom bit him. Not a very wise move for a PhD from Harvard, I thought. The second time was just a normal bite, if there is such a thing. He said it was like a bee sting that quickly goes away. I would be on my way to the emergency room in an ambulance demanding oxygen and every poison antidote known to humankind.


As the talk continued, he wound himself into an intensity that is reserved for those whose entire life and being is reserved for a single subject. He had traveled to Ecuador, Papua New Guinea, Gabon and now Sarawak in search of new species. He studies how they fit on the evolutionary tree of life, the history of genetic descent and how they are connected in the web of life. All I wanted to know was the best way to kill them.


Yet his enthusiasm and dedication won me over.


Their shape depends on where they live. The bark dwellers are flat and small so they can hide in the crevices. Those that live on leaves have long legs so they can easily walk across the surface. The ground denizens are stubby with short legs so they can negotiate the leaf litter.


They come in many different sizes and colors, hunt by pouncing on their prey and their visual system is as good as a cats but not as good as a dogs. (I had no idea a dog could see better than a cat.) They have four eyes in the front and two on each side. They jump by pumping blood into their legs and use them to spring (something akin to a hydraulic system.


The big news in the spider world from Borneo is the discovery of new species from the hispo genus. This variety has only been found from Africa to India and is of an ancient line that dates to when all the continents were connected in one big blob. Now Borneo is added to this connection.


As I travel through the rainforests, I will now be on the lookout for these critters and will have closer look – although, still, not that close.


. . . . .life is good. . . . .


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