September 17, 2010
Between reality TV and the 24-hour news cycle, it's hard to be surprised anymore by anything much humans do. Spiders, on the other hand, get up to all sorts of things that I doubt most of us would believe without documentary evidence. A case in point: In the newest issue of the always-interesting Journal of Arachnology (published by the American Arachnological Society), arachnologists Matjaz Kuntner and Ingi Agnarsson provide the first description of a remarkable species of spider from Madagascar. Even if you're not up to reading a whole paper like this, make sure to take a look at the extraordinary photographs included.
Kuntner and Agnarsson's newly described spider belongs to the little-studied genus Caerostris, commonly known as bark spiders because they often look like lumpy pieces of tree bark. They've named it C. darwini, or Darwin's bark spider, in honor of the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species. (more…)
July 23, 2010
We recently wrote about golden spider silk woven into a traditional Malagasy tapestry. Spider Silk co-author Cay Craig is just back from Madagascar, where she spearheads the Conservation through Poverty Alleviation project, known as CPALI for short. And she's brought lengths of a brand new kind of Malagasy textile made from bronze-colored native silk moth silk.
It's impossible not to pun that silk has threaded together various places, projects, and insights over the past 30 years of Cay's life. Cay first knew she wanted to make field research her life's work when she spent time as an undergraduate in Stanford's Human Biology program working with Jane Goodall at Gombe in Tanzania. Working later in Costa Rica, she realized that spiders and their silks would allow her not only to combine field research with her more recent interest in evolution but also to conduct experiments that would be impossible with larger or more mobile animals. And so her career as an arachnologist and eventual authority on silks and silk proteins began.
Visiting Gombe in 2002, Cay was devastated by the intervening damage to the forests surrounding the national park. She believed local people often had no option but to rip into the forests surrounding their villages in order to gain cropland or firewood. If there was some way to provide them an economic incentive to plant rather than cut down trees, she figured, they might gain a little more control over their economic situation and revitalize the buffer forest around the park at the same time.
That's what CPALI is doing at the edges of the Makira Protected Area in Madagascar – home of the silky sifaka and also site of some of the worst illegal rosewood harvesting. The latest tangible result is a length of bronze-colored, diaphanous textile created by sewing together hundreds of ironed-flat silk moth cocoons.
With the light shining through it, this textile is otherworldly and yet earthy, seeming simultaneously mineral and animal. A number of designers are interested in its possible use in wall coverings, lampshades, and window treatments. As sales increase, more farmers can join CPALI and additional forest loss to slash and burn agriculture avoided.
July 6, 2010
We stopped in at the American Museum of Natural History in New York over the weekend to see the one-of-a-kind tapestry woven in Madagascar from the silk of Nephila madagascariensis, one of the golden orb weavers. Weaving was a highly developed art in Madagascar through the middle of the 20th century, and Europeans marveled at Malagasy creations in raffia, silk, and cotton, but especially silk. Malagasy royalty gave silk textiles to foreign leaders as they tried to establish or cement strategic alliances.
But that was silkworm silk. Weaving textiles from spider silk has never been practical, even in Madagascar, where giant golden orb weavers abound. When the tapestry was unveiled last autumn, The New York Times explained how Simon Peers, who has partnered with Malagasy weavers over the last two decades to revive their traditional art, put into play a plan to create the world's largest--and certainly most beautiful--piece of spider silk cloth. And the AMNH made a film, which you can see here. But if you can, get to the AMNH yourself to see this almost incredible piece of work. I dare you to keep your fingers off the case--they'll want to reach in and feel those wandering fringes where the silk looks still untamed.