In the animal kingdom, spiders are a lot like Rodney Dangerfield — they get no respect, says Sebastian Echeverri, a 2019 American Association for the Advancement of Science Mass Media Science & Engineering Fellow.
Many people see spiders as a nuisance, think they’re ugly, don’t understand their function and don’t think twice about squashing them.
But in reality, spiders hold an important place in the ecosystem, as they make a living controlling insect populations, according to Echeverri. Spiders are not only major predators of other spiders and insects, but they’re also an important food source for smaller mammals and birds.
And they’re not as dangerous as you might believe, Echeverri says.
In the United States, there are only two types of spider species out of 500 with venom strong enough to make humans see a doctor if they’re bitten — the black widow and the brown recluse. Those bites are only life threatening if the victim has an allergic reaction, Echeverri says.
“Spiders are animals that are doing a lot more for us or for the ecosystem than people realize, they’re a lot more diverse than people realize,” Echeverri says. “While fear is a personal response, everything we know about spiders tells us that the vast, vast majority of them pose absolutely no threat to us in terms of actual harm.”
Echeverri, a PhD student in the Richards-Zawacki Lab at the University of Pittsburgh, is on track to graduate next summer, and plans to go into science communication, whether it’s as a science journalist or a communications expert at a museum or zoo. For now, Echeverri studies how and why jumping spiders get each other’s attention “when throwing down sick dance moves” when they’re interested in mating.
While some of the male jumping spiders are bright and colorful, a quality that helps them attract female jumping spiders, the males also get a little extra and do a “mating dance” to get female counterparts to notice them.
Jumping spiders only see color when they’re facing it — the eyes on the back of their heads can only see in black and white. While the female jumping spider might be aware the male spider is there, she may have other priorities to watch for, like a predator or food.
The male jumping spider performs his dance to cut through all that, so she turns around and looks at him in all his colorful glory.
“He does these cool arm movements and I’m studying how well they attracted the female’s attention so she can see the rest of the performance,” Echeverri says.
When male jumping spiders dance, Echeverri has found that the female jumping spiders look at him in a way that she can see his colors — at least 30 percent of the time.
The special place Echeverri has in his heart for spiders came rather recently. When he was applying for graduate school at the University of Pittsburgh in 2014, a professor there showed him a close-up video of a male jumping spider that completely blew his mind.
“It was this beautiful jumping spider and it was doing the courtship dance,” Echeverri says, adding that he recalls standing up in the meeting and saying, “Oh my god, this is amazing.”
A second video showed jumping spiders’ eyes moving as they looked at things around them. That showed Echeverri that jumping spiders are inquisitive and react with the world like we do.
His love of spiders continues into his personal life. He has 23 pet spiders — the majority of which are tarantulas — and he photographs spiders as a hobby, which helps him connect with them and appreciate their differences.
“To me … they all have their own personality and they all of their own way of being a spider,” Echeverri says. “There’s just so much there that every time I meet a new one, it’s like a stranger I need to get to know. I want to know how it approaches life and I’m always surprised.”
During his AAAS Mass Media Science & Engineering Fellowship, Echeverri spent the summer of 2019 working as a reporter on the Philadelphia Inquirer’s science news desk.
Naturally, he wrote a couple of stories about spiders, but he also covered video games and their effect on creativity, conservation of local bird species, and human efforts and technology that would allow people to live on Mars.
His favorite story of the internship was an article he pitched centered on Spider-Man, his superhero of choice. The 1,200-word piece answered whether the superhero can do the same things a spider can and revealed that there is just one spider that uses webs the same way Spider-Man does — spitting spiders, also known as Scytodidae. And he noted the other spiders the superhero borrows his fighting techniques from.
Echeverri says he feels a connection with Peter Parker, especially after “Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse.” In the film, Spider-Man is portrayed by New Yorker Miles Morales, an Afro-Latino comic book character — another connection for Echeverri as a former New Yorker and brown-skinned Latino man.
Spider-Man is not only a hometown hero for Echeverri, but the superhero also offers entry point for him to share with people, especially children, why spiders matter and aren’t just creepy, crawly things.
“Even if they hate spiders,” Echeverri says, “they like Spider-Man.”