Check this out: the Golden Orb Weaver.
That’s an adult female in all her glory. Smallish specimen, a little smaller than my hand with her legs stretched out. Here’s another, with my hand as close as I felt comfortable for comparison.
They’re harmless, of course. Just…big. Like, really big. The largest I’ve seen were almost the size of two hands held together. And their webs are massive, too. Continuously built upon, and can last for days. This species has a funny habit of slinging them across open spaces like archways and paths, and is the reason that–in a previous job–we nicknamed the unlucky bastard who chose to hike in the front of the group the designated “Spider Eater.” It was a job that often fell to me, and some mornings I would run into a web so big and strong that it would stop me in my tracks while I asked my friends to please find the enormous spider affixed to my body somewhere.
In fact, the webs are so strong that the Golden Orb is one of the only spider species to be farmed for its silk. The fiber–a lovely natural yellow color–is stronger than steel by weight, and is being produced as a Kevlar substitute for bulletproof fabric. Spider farms are pretty much what you’d expect–fields upon fields of spider webs strung between frames, something you’ll be picturing in your nightmares for several weeks now.
What is it about spiders that we find so terrifying? For most people have an immediate, almost gastrointestinal reaction to that arrangement of crooked radial legs around a little body. Experts argue back and forth as to whether this is socially reinforced–a symbol that we warn each other from a young age to fear, and fear well; or innate–a hereditary behavior influenced by genes. There’s much to be said for a genetic disposition towards avoiding spiders. Some really are dangerous. Your impulse to shriek and run is actually a survival instinct. Or at least a relic of one.
But some people go a step further, and one of the most well-known phobias is Arachnaphobia, the fear of spiders and a terrible horror movie. Common, powerful, and transcendental of culture and society, it’s one I’ve come to respect and sympathize for, especially here in the tropics. Conveniently enough, it’s also the same word in English, Spanish, French, and Italian.
I know the last one because I just welcomed some guests from Italy, one so arachnaphobic that he asked me to remove a Golden Orb from outside his cabin, saying that he couldn’t sleep knowing it was there. Outside the cabin. I obliged, but later one of his friends approached me with a worried look. She explained that she had arranged a two-day hike and camping trip into Corcovado National Park, the largest and densest rainforest in Costa Rica. Also the same place where I earned the name “Spider Eater.”
When she asked if spiders were going to be a problem, I just took a deep breath. That, and my expression, told her everything she needed to know. It didn’t even need translation into Italian. I tried to follow up by saying that, months from now, when her arachnaphobe friend was speaking to her again, he would look back on it as an adventure. But the damage was done. I never even got to tell my Spider Eater story.
It’s just that spiders are everywhere. Especially in the Tropics. You literally cannot escape them. It’s a good rule of thumb that wherever you are in the world–jungle, city, or Italy–a spider is watching you. Only here, it’s more like several hundred spiders. And some are rather large.
One last thing: that Golden Orb Weaver from before, remember how I knew that was a female? Well, here’s a male for comparison.
The males don’t produce silk, and squat in the web of a female, stealing bits of her food. His small size is an adaptation–any bigger, and she might try to eat him. He lives, hides, feeds, and mates, all without her even noticing. How’s that for an innate fear?