Outright Arachnophilia

Some years ago, the authors of this beautiful new book developed the website http://www.arachne.org.au. It didn’t take long for their resource to usurp every book I’d used before  to identify spiders: the older ground- breaking works by Raymond Mascord, Densey Clyne and Barbara York Main and even newer publications. Australia’s small arachnology community soon heard rumblings about a possible book, and over the past year, the rumblings become a roar. Now, A Field Guide to Spiders of Australia is here, and it is a tremendous achievement.

 

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BY Dr Owen Seeman - from Wildlife Australia Magazine SUBSCRIBE HERE

Invertebrates can be a hard sell in  the world of nature guides, even though their numbers are legion, outnumbering vertebrate species by an embarrassing ratio. Sure, some invertebrates are popular, such as butterflies, dragonflies, and seashells, but spiders…? Spiders are better known as venomous killers, and many people’s fascination with them begins with fear. Some find them outright terrifying. Watching an orb-weaver spin its web is one of the wonders of nature; witnessing it snare its prey, entwine it, and deliver the final bite is either enthralling or disturbing, depending on your relationship with spiders.

Robert Whyte and Greg Anderson are well aware that a lot of people don’t share their passion; hence, the tone of the book is welcoming and conversational. Before long, you’ve been introduced to a sizeable portion of Australia’s approximate 4000 species, described as if these were the authors’ beloved children. Once seduced by the charm of spiders, you’ll find yourself entranced by their ways and amused by the authors’ entertaining style. My favourite example is how a gradungulid spider catches its prey. You’ll probably never see one of these obscure spiders, which hook their prey on enlarged claws before transferring it to a ready- made web, but the authors capture the moment perfectly, describing it as ‘like a child being flung onto a trampoline’!

This is not a guide with diagnostic keys. Rather, their approach to identification tries to capture that used by arachnologists in the field. We are regularly informed of the valuable information provided by eye patterns, and sometimes claw tufts (which allow spiders to run up smooth surfaces) and other features. But all that is a sideshow to the real highlight of this guide: a rogue’s gallery of 1300 unfailingly superb photographs, reinforced with behavioural observations, which provide the tools to recognise the major groups of Araneae within Australia. Many of these species have never been photographed before.

The table of contents even has neat little photographs for quick reference, along with colour-coded tabs in the margins – for it’s likely that most beasts a keen spider-hunter encounters will fall into one of the common families. In this respect, two families get the lion’s share of the book: the orb-weavers (65 pages) and jumping spiders (80 pages).

The orb-weavers were once the darlings of the spider world, admired for their craftsmanship, beauty and strange habits.

Few can match the marriage of grotesque and gaudy that is the spiny orb-weaver. But now the limelight has shifted. Move over orb-weavers, with the advent of digital macrophotography, the jumping spiders are here – the new stars of the show. With Bambi eyes, a narcissistic tendency to stare at themselves in a lens, and outrageous colours, jumping spiders are almost everyone’s favourite. And not just the famous peacock spiders either. Don’t overlook the iridescent colour of Cosmophasis species, many with remarkable camouflage, or the sensational ant mimics.

Outside of these two big families, there’s admirable coverage of any  spider you care to think of: wolf spiders,  huntsman spiders,  tarantulas, funnelwebs, they’re all here, from all over Australia. My favourites remain  the bolas spiders, who have abandoned weaving to take up the arts of moth-seduction. The Celaenia bolas spider on page 98 might not be everyone’s idea of beauty, but its alien wonder kindles my boyish fascination with the bizarre. For real enthusiasts, obscurities are included in a special section in the back.

Anyone seeking to expand their newfound  arachnological obsession would do well to pair this book with A Guide to Spiders of Australia by Framenau et al., which gives a more scientific family-by-family treatment of Australian spiders.

So catch the fever: spiders are everywhere, and this is the perfect book to get to know them more intimately.

 

BUY A Field Guide to Spiders of Australia Robert Whyte, Greg Anderson

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DR OWEN SEEMAN is the Collection Manager for Arachnida at the Queensland Museum. He  is also an editor for the journal Zootaxa. Owen’s main research area is the taxonomy of mites that live with insects and plants.

Wildiaries • October 2017