Man Bites Spider

June 22, 2010

Tags: Cambodia, Bristowe, Thailand, Mygalomorphae

A friend directed us to this article about tourists hunting and eating big spiders in Cambodia. Although the article states that Cambodians first began eating large spiders when forced into the countryside by the Khmer Rouge, the practice undoubtedly started long before--maybe even thousands of years before. The great British araneologist W. S. Bristowe reports spider consumption in Thailand in the 1930s, and it's hard to believe Asians and others haven't always dug for spiders. Really, when you think about it, eating a spider is no more disgusting than eating a soft-shell crab. They're both arthropods, with all that taxonomic designation entails. Exoskeleton, jointed legs, segments. Throw in some chili or garlic and you've got a tasty, protein-packed entree.

So it's not surprising that subsistence farmers or other people who struggle to get enough to eat would look to oyster-sized spiders for sustenance. But foreign tourists don't need to eat spiders. Every one of us who extols environmentalism eats something that leaves us open to charges of hypocrisy. The problem with this new tourist trade in spiders, though, is that it probably represents a sudden increase in the number of spiders taken from their burrows, and no one knows how this will affect local ecosystems.

Arthropods aren't as cute as sea turtles or baby seals. But they play vital, and usually underappreciated, roles in ecosystems. These fried spiders belong to the infraorder Mygalomorphae, which includes tarantulas, trap-door spiders, and their closest relatives. Many other kinds of spider complete their full lifecycles in a single year. But some mygalomorphs rack up the years, living more than two decades in captivity. Females in some mygalomorph families aren't sexually mature until they are more than 5 years old. So it's easy to see how too many burrow raids could inadvertently lead to collapse of local spider populations. Burrowing spiders are predators of walking insects and other arthropods, so hunting may also have an indirect negative impact on local farmers' crops.

The local people selling these mygalomorphs to tourists must need income. Maybe tourists could be convinced to pay them to guide catch-and-release expeditions instead.




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"...a compelling introduction to evolution in action through the lens of spiders and their silks."

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