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Webs Worldwide! Why Spiders Are So Pivotal To The Planet's Ecosystem

Threatened with extinction, these little creatures, often feared, nonetheless provide us with significant ecological services.

Doctor showing his gloved fist with a spider on it.

Dr Michel Dugon, Head of the Venom Systems Lab at NUI Galway, Ireland.

Charlotte Meyer

PARIS — At the heart of a dimly lit room, 76 spider webs intertwine and entangle. Microphones placed on either side of the space amplify the vibrations created by the spiders as they move along the threads.

One thing is certain: it's best not to be arachnophobic when visiting the place! In 2018, Tomas Saraceno was given carte blanche to take over the 13,000 m2 of the Palais de Tokyo. The Argentine artist, who has been building one of the world's largest collections of spider webs in his Berlin studio for several years, wasted no time.

With his exhibition "On Air," the Parisian contemporary art center transformed into a vast laboratory traversed by webs of various shapes, where spiders observe the visitors. For Saraceno, the webs evoke the connections that unite living beings with each other.

If the exhibition made a sensation, it's because spiders both fascinate and repulse us. But regardless of our relationship with them, we will likely need to pay them more attention in the coming years. On April 5, the French Committee of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) presented the first comprehensive assessment of spiders in France, which reveals that one in 10 species in France, out of the 1,622 identified, is threatened.

A range of threats to spiders

In France, spiders attract far less attention than other species. In fact, there are few specialists who focus on these small creatures. "Due to this lack of knowledge, our data on the subject is insufficient," says Florian Kirchner, Species Officer at the French Committee of the IUCN, who emphasizes that the analysis reveals a lack of information for over 30% of the evaluated spider species.

"The most significant threat is the degradation and destruction of spider habitats," he indicates. Prairie spiders, such as the Erigone, are affected by soil erosion, while woodland spiders suffer as a result of logging. "In general, development measures such as urbanization and artificialization harm arachnids, leaving them without suitable habitats," explains Kirchner.

They are also victims of environmental pollution. Harmful products to the environment, such as pesticides and insecticides, affect spiders directly or indirectly through the consumption of contaminated prey. "Similar to bats and field birds, spiders also suffer from a decline in their food resources due to the elimination of insects by intensive agriculture," says Kirchner.

It affects only a few, but it's an additional threat they could do without.

In more specific cases, certain species suffer from an increase in human traffic, linked, for example, to tourism on beaches, along trails, or in caves. Coastal tourism, which encourages the systematic cleaning of beaches, is also detrimental to the fragile habitats of the shoreline. This disrupts the habitat of the Poseidon Spider, which exclusively lives in the leaves of marine plants washed up on the beaches. Others are also particularly sensitive to disturbances caused by recreational spelunking. "Occasionally, some species attract the attention of collectors," adds Kirchner. "It affects only a few, but it's an additional threat they could do without." The Sand Dune Wolf Spider, with its resemblance to a ladybug, is particularly favored by enthusiasts.

The fate of spiders ultimately confirms the deterioration of biodiversity observed worldwide, weakened by climate change. Species in mountainous regions, especially in the Alps, are experiencing the effects of rising temperatures and are forced to move higher in altitude to maintain favorable conditions.

"Naturally, as we go higher in altitude, there is less space for everyone," explains Kirchner. "Competition between species intensifies, inevitably creating losers in this race towards the peaks." Spiders found in southern France and the Mediterranean region, on the other hand, are affected by drought.

\u200bNeon-coloured spiders on a white surface.

Neon-coloured spiders which can jump six times their own length, at ZSL London Zoo, April 7, 2022.

© Cover Images via ZUMA press

Essential bio-indicators

Christine Rollard is a professor-researcher at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris. She is one of the few specialists in spiders in France, and has dedicated around 50 publications to this often-misunderstood creature. It was during her university studies that she became interested in arachnids: "In college, I was asked to work on a topic about insects that eat spiders. That's how I got involved in this field about 40 years ago. It was a fortunate coincidence."

For the arachnologist, the importance of spiders in our ecosystem is beyond doubt. In fact, it dates back to ancient times, with the earliest fossil evidence of arachnids over 300 million years old. "As predators, they play a major role in regulating animal populations," explains the researcher. "They are an integral part of the food chain."

As carnivores, spiders feed on flies, bugs, aphids and mites, while also serving as prey for other species. Their presence ensures the balance of ecosystems. "With the arrival of the tiger mosquito (in France), which carries dangerous diseases for humans such as dengue fever or chikungunya, this role becomes even more important," emphasizes Kirchner.

They are also excellent indicators of the current state of the environment around them.

"They are also excellent indicators of the current state of the environment around them,” adds Rollard. Whether perched at the top of trees or nestled in the heart of mountains, some spiders are closely tied to specific habitats. For example, the Napoleon spider, named after the pattern on its abdomen resembling the bust of the emperor and his bicorne hat, is well-known in gardens and meadows, while Dolomedes spiders spend most of their lives in wetlands. If their presence decreases in their natural habitat, it is a sign of weakening in that particular environment. Therefore, a significant number of spiders in a garden is not bad news; instead, it demonstrates the vitality of the ecosystem.

A culturally rooted phobia

Whether they evoke disgust, panic or deeply rooted phobias, spiders are far from having only friends in our country. Approximately 40% of our population, over half of women and one in 10 men, report being afraid of these invertebrates. From the giant tarantula portrayed in the 1955 horror film Tarantula by Jack Arnold to the cannibalistic spiders in the Harry Potter series, our works of fiction have indeed made them an enduring symbol of terror.

In Africa, Asia or Australia, the relationship with spiders is not the same.

But where does this apprehension come from? "This fear is highly cultural," explains Rollard. "In Africa, Asia or Australia, the relationship with spiders is not the same. Perhaps it is due to the fact that in the Western world, our connection with nature has become complicated." In other parts of the world, spiders do not have the same monstrous image that we have attributed to them.

In Venezuela, the Piaora indigenous people worship spiders in their ancestral beliefs, and the tarantula is a sacred animal that acts as an intermediary between the world of the dead and the world of the living, transmitting the wisdom of the deceased. In West Africa, Ananse, a folkloric hero responsible for creating the sky and teaching agricultural techniques to humanity, alternates between human form and that of a spider.

"This fear often stems from a lack of knowledge," says Rollard. "It can result from media influence or, in other times, religious writings that portrayed spiders as dark and negative beings." In medieval imagination, arachnids were often depicted as diabolical creatures, spinning a large web to capture our souls. They were frequently associated with the plague as well.

"The fear of spiders is not a serious issue, but it should not develop into a phobia," adds Rollard. Getting to know them is also a way to reconnect with the living world. It is with this perspective that the researcher highlights this zoological group, which is ultimately understudied and misunderstood, dispelling misconceptions about them. And there are indeed many misconceptions surrounding spiders.

The first misconception is the erroneous claim that spiders are insects. Lacking antennae, they have eight legs and typically as many eyes. They belong to the arachnid family. "And contrary to what is sometimes claimed, this arachnid will not enter your mouth at night while you sleep," says Rollard. The image of giant tarantulas spreading terror in horror films should also be discarded, as the bodies of the largest spiders rarely exceed 10 centimeters.

A woman holding a South American tarantula.

A woman holds a South American tarantula, one of the largest spiders of its kind in the world, photographed at the Rodgau Wildlife Ark, 09 March 2023, Hesse, Rodgau.

© Helmut Fricke via ZUMA press

Overcoming stereotypes

The most deeply rooted idea is that spiders are a threat to humans. However, Rollard explains, "Humans have never been prey for spiders. This myth really needs to be removed from our minds." Out of the 50,000 known species worldwide, only about 100 are potentially dangerous. Contrary to a widespread belief, spiders do not sting. Their fangs are used for biting, especially insects, of which they are very fond. "They carry venom, but it is not potent enough to kill mammals like us," she adds. Worldwide, between five and 15 fatal cases are reported each year. These deaths are mostly due to infections at the location of the bite, rather than the direct action of the venom.

We are afraid of what we do not know.

Rollard is committed to helping overcome apprehensions towards these creatures. She regularly provides training sessions and lectures to audiences of all kinds. She also meets people suffering from arachnophobia, sometimes in collaboration with psychotherapists. "We are often afraid of what we do not know," she explains. "My goal is to teach them about spiders and change their perspective. In the end, it's not necessarily about loving them, but about accepting and respecting them in our environment since they are part of the natural balance."

Her approach includes activities such as drawing or examining photos of spiders' morphology, visiting her office where plush spiders and preserved specimens are displayed in jars, and observing small arachnids using a binocular microscope. Sometimes, individuals even agree to let a spider crawl on their hand. "I truly adapt to the person in front of me," she says.

The researcher is also a member of the French Arachnology Association (Asfra), an association whose expertise was sought by the IUCN to compile its Red List of endangered species. With its 120 members, including knowledgeable enthusiasts, the association carries a scientific, cultural and educational mission. Throughout France, it promotes the understanding of arachnids and contributes to their protection and the preservation of their habitats.

A new perspective on a misunderstood creature

In building a more peaceful relationship between humans and spiders, art can also be an effective lever. In the east of France, nature photographer Marc Pihet developed a passion for spiders after a particularly gloomy spring forced him to take an interest in what he had in his own home. He found himself captivated by tiny spiders. "I took great pleasure in interacting with them," he recalls. "These spiders had large frontal eyes, highly developed vision, which gave the impression that they were looking at me as I photographed them."

His exhibition on the subject has been highly successful, with visitors finding a certain poetry in these portraits adorned with flowers and soft hues. "As a nature photographer, we have the role of a witness," says Pihet. "Not only do we show things from a different perspective, but we can also raise awareness of the beauty of this biodiversity."

Sébastien Malo, also a nature photographer, shares this opinion. Malo spent most of his childhood observing insects and spiders in his garden. "As a kid, I used to temporarily capture them and place them in magnifying boxes to observe them up close and start discerning tiny details of their anatomy, like their hairs, mandibles and eyes," he recalls. A “self-taught photographer," as he likes to call himself, he overcame his fear of arachnids by observing them and learning about them.

"Each species has its own characteristics," he adds. "Some spin webs to catch prey, while others hunt by ambushing. Some move by crawling, others by jumping, like the jumping spiders. I challenge anyone not to be charmed by their adorable faces."

Through his photographs, which he aims to be educational, Malo tries to convey a better image of these underappreciated animals by showcasing them, and accompanying his creations with anecdotes. "The population of insects is largely decreasing due to human activity and its consequences," he reminds us. "Fighting ignorance can help reduce fear of them." By contemplating his photos, some viewers have confessed to taking more time to observe spiders and even overcoming their arachnophobia. For the photographer, this is already a victory.

Saraceno, the Argentine artist, continues to work with spiders. His artwork "Algo-r (h) i (y) thms," a gigantic human-sized spiderweb, for example, aims to make us hear all the vibrations perceived by spiders. The artist has also developed the concept of "Aerocene," a political-ecological-artistic movement that brings together an "international and multidisciplinary community that imagines new ways of inhabiting the air, without borders and without fossil energy."

So far, no spider species in mainland France is the subject of a dedicated conservation program or specific protective measures. After the publication of the assessment conducted by the IUCN, Florian Kircher hopes to initiate a series of actions, including emergency plans for the 170 endangered species in France. "It is essential to strengthen the protection of natural habitats that harbor many threatened species, taking into account not only spiders but also other organisms," he says. For him, this is just a first step towards a deeper change. In the future, these issues should lead us to reconsider our way of inhabiting space in order to learn to coexist with all the species essential to our ecosystem.

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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

What Zelensky Won't Say Out Loud: Ukraine Is Running Short On Troops

Ukraine has a recruitment problem, with some units at only 70% of their intended strength. But President Zelensky is unwilling to talk about mass mobilization. The result is a parallel reality, with more recruitment coming from rural areas and lower classes, and some urbanites feeling victory is not too far, and their sacrifice is not needed.

photo of Zelensky and a Ukrainian soldier

Zelensky and a Ukrainian soldier.

Rustem Khalilov, Mykhailo Krygel & Olga Kyrylenko

KYIV — Walking through the center of Kyiv in the fall of 2023 can make you feel like you’ve gone back in time. The atmosphere in the city seems to transport you to either a carefree past or a promising future.

Stay up-to-date with the latest on the Russia-Ukraine war, with our exclusive international coverage.

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You'll find bustling cafes filled with people enjoying oat milk lattes, business lunches, and people zipping around on scooters.

Amongst these images of ‘normal life’, the "Field of Memory" on Maidan Square, adorned with thousands of flags bearing the names or call signs of fallen soldiers, serves as a poignant reminder of the ongoing war. Lights and billboards of the Armed Forces of Ukraine beckon citizens to "join their ranks." But these often go ignored.

Military chaplain Andriy Zelinskyi has diagnosed this situation as "discursive incompatibility."

“An entirely self-contained and substantial illusion of an alternative reality has emerged,” he says. “A reality that acts as an escape from the pain, wounds, and losses of war. This alternative reality poses a significant threat to the unity needed to effectively resist Russia.”

One segment of society has been in the trenches for a year and a half, witnessing the daily horrors of destruction, injury, and the loss of comrades. Meanwhile, another segment lives on in cities like Kyiv, Lviv, or Odesa, offering donations, or just thinking about contributing, while attempting to distance themselves from the war as much as possible.

The government has also played a role in creating and maintaining this alternative reality. In its public communication, full-scale mobilization is a taboo. An honest conversation about mobilization as a guarantee for survival and eventual victory seems "out of place" when elections are looming.

Periodically, cracks in this alternative reality emerge. For instance, a publication in TIME magazine highlighted that in some military branches, personnel shortages were more critical than those of weapons and ammunition. The article was dismissed by Ukrainian authorities as nonsense.

In the meantime, without waiting for the transition to full-scale mobilization, some military units are taking matters into their own hands, actively seeking and motivating individuals who are willing to don a military uniform and bear arms.

Following the challenging defense of Bakhmut and Zaporizhzhia, it became clear that the Ukrainian military was in dire need of reinforcements.

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