Things are seldom as they appear

Jumping spider sitting on back legs like a dog begging

Sometimes, looking through a 65-mm macro lens is like having a superpower I wish I didn’t have. Lately, it’s torn open a tiny world that seems to be under constant threat of civil war. And as much as I don’t want to take sides, it’s becoming increasingly impossible not to. No matter whether in the big, real world that we’re all entrenched in every day, or this miniature escape world that my camera actively seeks out, there’s an unintended inclination towards prejudice, despite how neutral and inclusive one’s mindset may be.

Take for instance the friendly jumping spider I’ve affectionately named “Fido” – not only because he sits up on his hind legs and begs like a canine, but because he has other admirable traits to me that subconsciously, hell even consciously, make me elevate him above other spider species. I’m not saying it’s right, I’m just saying it’s true. It’s an indisputable fact that jumping spiders, to me, are like the dog of the spider world. Maybe it’s their come-hither eyes (all eight of them) or their playful spirit (jumping spiders, despite their minuscule, thumbnail size, are known to be especially inquisitive and social with humans). While my long-time cleaning lady would reject the idea that I don’t keep common cellar spiders – AKA daddy long-legs – as pets, I would never consciously do so. The jumping spider, however, I could see being an “official” pet in this household. That is, if I didn’t feel strongly that it’s a wild animal and belongs outside, in its natural environment.

So, this weekend, when I discovered a jumping spider scaling the walls in my bathroom, as much as I was tempted to “adopt” him, sanity set in and I eschewed the notion of adding another pet to the household. Only problem was, I was hobbling about in a knee brace and limited in the level of athletic feat I could safely perform for Operation Spider Relocation. So, I opened the bathroom window and watched him curiously as he ran around in circles near the ceiling, hoping at some point he would accept my gracious invitation to the garden party. But instead, like a lost stray, he continued bouncing around aimlessly, almost beckoning me to catch him, welcome him into the family, and fit him with his own, albeit tiny, GPS collar. And that might have happened, had this stray not been too skittish to catch, eventually leading me to distraction. So, I left him to his own devices, assuming he would eventually hop out the window. About an hour later I spied him making his way into the hallway and vowed that as soon as he travelled within my reach, I would capture him and return him to his real owner, Mother Nature. Alas, that was not to be, as somehow the day got away from me, as days tend to do, and I had lost track of him.

The next day, my jolly jumping spider was still remotely in the back of my mind every time I passed through the hallway. I kept expecting we’d meet again, enjoy a good game of fetch, and eventually part ways at the back door. As I traversed the hallway later in the day, with my brain conjuring up lively images of my little friend, my eyes caught a glimpse of a daddy long-legs hanging out near the floorboard. Again, I couldn’t help but draw comparisons. This spindly legged creature (of the Pholcidae family of spiders), painted in drab brown, was just so lackluster compared to the colorful, fuzzy, charismatic jumping spider (of the Salticidae family). The Salticidae are far more interesting in every way. Their aforementioned “personality” traits aside, just from a scientific standpoint, these spiders are fascinating. They can jump distances 10 to 40 times their body length (thus the moniker “jumping spider”), are vividly colored in an endless kaleidoscope of colors, depending on the species, and the males have highly modified front legs that they use to fend off females after mating. While they do spin silken thread to anchor themselves during climbing, and to build “pup” tents for protecting themselves and their eggs from the elements, Salticidae do not build webs for catching prey. Instead, they are active hunters, using their keen eyesight to stalk and overtake their prey. Meanwhile, at the ranch, the Pholcidae builds a messy, non-adhesive web in the corner where it hangs out all day, eating bonbons, waiting for a tug on the line. Once an insect is tripped up in the web, the Pholcidae envelops and immobilizes them in a sheath of silken thread before inflicting a fatal bite. Hardly a fair fight, but I wouldn’t expect much from a Pholcidae. 

Before having time to fully consider who would win in a match between Salticidae and Pholcidae (surely pitting the gallant, handsome warrior against the lackadaisacal opportunist would be no contest), I noticed that the bland daddy long-legs who had caught my eye had also caught something else. I leaned in for a closer look and confirmed that he did, indeed, have a cocoon of something rather large stashed under his tiny head. My heart skipped a beat. To the naked eye, I could swear I spied a tangle of striped and colorful limbs. But I couldn’t entrust this to the naked eye. The only way to properly inspect this situation was through a macro lens, which I ran for (knee brace and all) like my life depended on it. With a light in position and the macro lens trained only an inch away from the scene, I methodically pulled the focus ring so as not to crush the spider against the wall. When the subject came into focus, I drew back abruptly, and felt a dizzying aura take over me. Had this been a Jane Austen novel, I would certainly have fainted and hit the floor violently. The daddy long-legs had captured my jumping spider! The Pholcidae had triumphed over the Salticidae! How had this happened? Was my dashing warrior so geographically challenged that he had miscalculated the environment? Did he wander aimlessly into a dark, dusty corner while trying desperately to get his bearings? It made no sense. The hero of the story is not supposed to be taken down and shot full of venom, but that was exactly what was happening before my very own, weary eyes. My brain oscillated between guilt and anger. Why hadn’t I tried harder to catch the jumping spider? How had this ugly daddy long-legs, who appeared even more grotesque under extreme magnification, ruined the end to my story?

When my emotions settled down and my heart rate returned to normal, I began to examine my preconceptions and how I had anthropomorphized these creatures – and, most disappointingly, how I had made assumptions based on bias. Put bluntly, I had ascribed traits of power, privilege, and heroism to the creature I deemed more attractive and charming, and I had dismissed the natural talents of the creature I found boring and unappealing. When in truth, however, both spiders were well-equipped to handle the situations that they were best adapted for. That old adage “you can’t judge a book by its cover” was staring me in the face, and while I didn’t like it (and quite frankly wanted to slam the book shut on the daddy long-legs), I had to accept it. Nature thrives on diversity and has a place for every creature, and every creature has a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And yes, even to the pursuit of others spiders, if that is what nature intended.

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