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A Science Documentary Just In Time for Halloween

Tasmanian Cave Spider

Face to face with history: the Tasmanian Cave Spider. It is an evolutionary enigma that has survived the rise and fall of the dinosaurs, the splitting of the continents, and the entirety of human civilization (Photo: Joe Shemesh/Bookend Trust).

Sixteen Legs is not an ordinary documentary. Instead, it is a combined multimedia exhibition and documentary project produced by an Australian environmental education charity called the Bookend Trust, the science and educational arm of the Pennicott Foundation. One of the charity’s missions is to provide life-changing opportunities to disadvantaged and regional students that they may not otherwise receive. In conjunction with the theatrical version of the documentary, the project has developed educational outreach campaigns for both Australia and the United States, including two books, a science-art collaboration involving high school students, an exhibition, and online resources.

The documentary itself takes on a subject that may make some viewers squirm: spiders. And they aren’t your run-of-the-mill spiders, either. They happen to be giant, prehistoric spiders the size of dinner plates that live in caves in Tasmania. The spider featured in this documentary is the Tasmanian Cave Spider, which is a still-living, prehistoric animal that outlasted the dinosaurs, survived the splitting of continents, and endured all of civilization within some of Australia’s largest and deepest caves. These animals were the first web-spinners on the planet and are at the apex of this extraordinary ecosystem.

Dr. Niall Doran and colleagues have been studying the biology of the Tasmanian Cave Spider for over 20 years and have revealed some incredible aspects of their natural history that makes the basis of the film. The research on these giant animals reveals that they break the rules compared to their surface cousins: they have a very unusual mating strategy that allows the males to survive in the dark, their young to take nine months to emerge from the egg-sacs (instead of six to eight weeks), they have structurally and chemically unique egg structures to allow the eggs and young to develop for so long, and the adult spiders live for decades (instead of two to three years).

The film takes place in the Tasmanian Wilderness, a World Heritage Site that has been subjected to severe glaciation. These parks and reserves cover an area of over one million hectares and constitute one of the last expanses of temperate rainforest in the world. Remains found in limestone caves attest to the human occupation of the area for more than 20,000 years.

The journey of the film takes us from the “normal” and more readily understandable realms of the surface world into the dark recesses of the deep caves. It starts on the surface and heads deeper and deeper, encountering the distinct and different conditions, creatures, obstacles, and challenges that are found in each stage of the progression underground.

Each stage helps lay the pathway for the next, taking viewers from a world of familiarity into one that is very alien, but acclimatizing them at each step so that increasingly weird things start to feel normal. Viewers feel as though they have been on a caving expedition, travelling deeper and deeper before returning to the surface, while also becoming more deeply enmeshed in the finer detail and science of this unusual world along the way.

Filming for the documentary took place in some of Australia’s deepest and most spectacular caves that are “restricted access,” meaning they are not open to the public or media due to the high conservation value of the caves themselves. It’s also due to the fact that only the most experienced cavers can safely access them (only 72 people are allowed access to some of these caves per year). Dr. Doran and his colleagues were granted exclusive filming access on the basis of their long history of cave research and their ability to work in highly fragile and dangerous underground environments.

Input for the film was added from scientific teams in Australia, New Zealand, the United States, the United Kingdom, Europe, and South America. In addition to these experts, this real-life tale of deep science is given a dark, fairytale twist by author Neil Gaiman.

A short film called Sixteen Legs: Spider Love, about the making of the documentary, has won various awards. The documentary itself premiered at the Jean Cocteau Cinema in Santa Fe on October 3, 2016. The documentary is a touring educational film for schools. A version is intended to be available for broadcast sale, but the initial release is targeted, independent cinema screenings, especially for school audiences who can then talk with experts about biology and conservation. All proceeds from the project will support disadvantaged students to build careers studying the natural world.