Spiders, snakes, vampire bat and lamprey specimens

Creepy Creatures?

Are you spooked by spiders? Far from being a fan of rats? Minded to avoid moths or backtrack at the sight of a bat? This blog post is here to set the record straight. These animals that may seem creepy or frightening showcase some amazing biology and perform important roles in the habitats where they live. Here staff, students and volunteers from the Museum of Zoology share spooky specimens and the stories behind them, busting a few myths along the way.

Goliath bird-eating tarantula, Theraphosa blondi

Museum PhD student Michael Pashkevich writes:

Goliath bird-eating tarantula
Goliath bird-eating tarantula, Theraphosa blondi (c) Smithsonian Institute NMNH Insect Zoo CC BY-NC 2.0

Of the world’s ‘creepy’ animals, I have a particular fondness for spiders. With their beady eyes, eight legs, and erratic movement patterns, they are undeniably freaky and, I would argue, beautiful. Spiders come in many sizes, and the largest of all is the Goliath bird-eating tarantula. This Amazonian behemoth has a leg span of approximately one foot (~30 cm), and is also the largest arachnid (an order of animals also including scorpions, mites, and harvestmen).

Despite its name, the Goliath bird-eating tarantula does not feed purely on birds. Their diet includes a diverse array of tasty treats that also includes large insects, small rodents, and reptiles such as lizards. Like most spiders, Goliath bird-eating tarantulas detect both prey and predators using the hairs on their bodies. These hairs are connected to pit-like sensory organs that aid the spider in detecting changes in its surrounding environment. Some even act as chemical receptors, and allow the spider to “taste” the surrounding environment.

You might think the Goliath bird-eating tarantula is scary. However, there is little evidence to support this. If it bit you, it would not be deadly and would only feel like a wasp sting. I think this is impressively minimal, given the relatively large size of its fangs. Further, these spiders are important components of food webs in the Amazon, as they are a valuable mesopredator that sits at the top of invertebrate food chains. They eat cockroaches! What’s not to love?

Spider specimens
Large spiders in the Museum of Zoology

Sadly, we do not have a Goliath bird-eating tarantula on display in the Zoology Museum, but we do have many other tarantula specimens. Check out these wonderfully creepy and beautiful creatures during your next visit!

Death’s Head Hawk Moth, Acherontia atropos

Research Assistant Matt Hayes writes:

Death's head hawk moth
Death’s head hawk moth

Few animals fit in so well with the theme of Halloween as the Death’s Head Hawk Moth. Its name comes from the fact that it literally appears to have a picture of a skull emblazoned on its back! What’s more, adults can be found in the UK during October, travelling over in time for Halloween from as far as Africa and the Middle East. It is one of our largest species of moth and both the adult and caterpillar can make audible noises. Adults produce a high-pitched squeak whereas the larvae produce a loud click, and these strange sounds add to the mythology that surrounds the insect.

For these reasons, seeing a Death’s Head Hawk Moth has historically been a dark omen, one associated with catastrophe, commotion and death. This has also made its way into popular culture, with one of the most famous depictions of the moth coming in the film ‘Silence of the Lambs’ where they were a calling card of a serial killer.

Death's head hawk moth collected from the bed chamber of King George III
Death’s head hawk moth collected from the bed chamber of King George III

The moth was even rumoured to have tormented King George III and contribute to his ‘madness’. Two Death’s Head Hawk Moths were discovered in his bedroom in 1801 and some believe they were placed there deliberately by people trying to further damage the mental health of the King. One of these specimens is now stored behind the scenes here at the Zoology Museum.

However, this moth isn’t really a harbinger of doom! It’s strange clicks, squeaks and spooky appearance are thought to have specific purposes and aren’t really designed to torment humans at all. The loud click produced by the caterpillar is thought to be a defensive noise to ward off would be predators. The adult’s squeak may have a similar function, but it has also been suggested that it could help as a disguise. The Death’s Head Hawk Moth has been observed entering beehives and emerging unharmed. The squeak could resemble the call of a queen bee and allow the moth to be accepted, with its eerie black and orange markings also helping it blend in and only coincidentally looking like a skull. Whatever the truth of this theory, research suggests that the moth also uses chemical odours so that it ‘smells’ invisible to the bees and it can feed on honey unharmed.

Therefore, this Halloween, instead of dreading the appearance of this iconic moth, enjoy seeing it as it stops over on its long journey and appreciate the fascinating adaptations it uses to make its living. For more content on why we should appreciate moths, check out my previous post challenging some common misconceptions: https://museumofzoologyblog.com/2021/07/20/national-moth-week-2021/

Common Vampire Bat, Desmodus rotundus

Museum Volunteer Bryony Yates writes:

Vampire bat specimen
Vampire bat, Desmodus rotundus

On your visits to the Museum you may not have noticed our bat specimens. We have a handful on display, tucked away on an unassuming pillar in the Lower Gallery. Likewise, you may have bats on your doorstep and not even know it! Next time you are outside after sunset on a warm evening – even just sitting in your garden – try looking up. You’re most likely glimpse the flitty, erratic flight of a common pipistrelle bat as it zips around, catching up to 3000 midges in a single night.

Our small display doesn’t reflect the importance of bats as a species group. Significantly, they are the only mammals capable of true, powered flight (don’t let the flying squirrel’s name fool you!). With over 1,300 species they are the second largest group of mammals and they are found on every continent except Antarctica. Bats also provide important ecosystem services – they eat insect pests and pollinate ecologically and commercially-important plants. And, no, they are not blind, nor will they fly into your hair. Some bat species, like the flying foxes, have excellent eyesight, while many others (including all 18 UK bats species) use high frequency sound to navigate with such precision that they would never accidentally fly into you!

Because there are so many bat species, living in so many places, they display a large spectrum of diets and behaviours. Some of the more peculiar concern the three species of spookily-named vampire bats. These bats live in Central and South America and, as the name suggests, eat blood. However, this is much less scary than it sounds! The common vampire bat (which you can see in the museum) feeds on livestock. They cut the skin with their sharp teeth and lap up a small amount of blood that flows out. Vampire bats have lots of amazing adaptations that enable their vampiric lifestyle, including anti-clotting chemicals in their saliva, heat sensors in their faces and social behaviours that include food-sharing between well-fed and starving bats. While bats represent little to no threat to us, habitat-loss, disease, and persecution are imperilling bat populations worldwide. It’s high time we showed these misunderstood critters a bit of love!

Adder, Vipera berus

Museum PhD student Alex Howard writes:

Adder specimen
Adder, Vipera berus

The European adder Vipera berus, or just the adder for short, is Britain’s only venomous snake. While venomous snakes often strike fear in the hearts of most people, our native species is shy and secretive, only encountered in open habitats such as heath and moorland. Like most snakes, adders prefer to slither away than fight, as at only 60 to 80 cm, they are small compared to the huge stomping boots of your average rambler likely to encounter them. Because of their shy nature, bites from this species are incredibly rare, most likely to happen if people try to pick them up or accidentally step on them. If you are ever so unlucky to be bitten, bites are rarely fatal although very painful.

In general, snakes are great members of ecosystems, and should be celebrated as part of our native wildlife. As top predators, snakes help keep rodent populations low and stable, reducing the chance of spreading disease. Venom has also been utilised in several medical advances, as the anticoagulant properties of venom are useful in treating conditions such as strokes and heart attacks.

So if you do ever happen to chance upon a beautiful European adder, remember that they are more scared of you than you are of them, and they are best left to get on with their snakey business.

Find out more about British reptiles with Alex’s Sunshine and Scales blogpost.

Lamprey, Petromyzon marinus

Museum Learning Officer Roz Wade writes:

Mouth of a sea lamprey
Mouth of a sea lamprey

When I was a kid, we had this amazing encyclopaedia of animals. There were many volumes, with the animals arranged in alphabetical order based on their common names, and inside each volume were loads of colour photographs of creatures big and small from all over the world. I loved it and would spend hours flicking through the pages admiring anteaters, gazing at gazelles or marvelling at monkeys, moths or millipedes. But there was one volume I left firmly on the shelf. Close to the beginning of the ‘L’ volume there was a full page colour picture of the mouth of a lamprey, and six-year-old me was terrified. It really was the stuff of nightmares, with its rows and rows of ‘teeth’ circling a hole in the centre, looking like a monster from the Star Wars films. It had quite the impact on my impressionable mind.

Fast forward to when I was a PhD student preparing to teach vertebrate evolution supervisions. What had scared me as a child was now a complete fascination – I couldn’t get enough of jawless fishes! Not because they look creepy, but because of what they tell us about the evolution of backboned animals. Take the lamprey. It is often described as ‘eel-shaped’, but this a little lazy. Apart from being long and thin, lampreys are really nothing like eels.

Sea lamprey specimen
Sea Lamprey, Petromyzon marinus

Starting with the fins, lampreys have no paired fins at all, just a fin web going around the end of the tail. Take a look inside the body, and you won’t find any bone. Instead the body is supported by the notochord, the rod of tissue that forms the scaffold of vertebrate embryos and is replaced, at least in part, by the vertebrae in jawed vertebrates. Take a look behind the head of an eel and you will see a flap called the operculum covering the gills. The gills themselves are supported by a series of jointed skeletal bars we call the gill or branchial arches. Jawed fishes take a mouthful of water which is carried over the gills and out through the gill openings. Lampreys are very different.

Lamprey skeleton
Skeleton of a sea lamprey

Their gills are pouch-like and surrounded by a springy basket of cartilage. This structure helps them to breathe in and out through the same gill openings. Why might this be helpful for these jawless fishes? Well, that round mouth is often suckered to something, making it impossible for them to take in water that way. Which brings me to the mouth itself.

How does this animal feed without jaws? Adult sea lampreys use this round mouth to sucker onto the side of other fish, those tooth-like structures (not teeth at all, but made of the protein keratin) for added grip. They then use their piston-like, rasping tongue to drill a hole into its prey’s side so they can suck out the body fluids. Ok, that part of the story is quite halloween. But if you saw a larval lamprey, with its filter-feeding habits, you wouldn’t see it , so gruesome. And there are species of lamprey, such as the brook lamprey (Lampetra planeri), that don’t feed as an adult at all, using the mouth to latch onto rocks as it swims upstream to spawn.

Biting British Spiders

Museum Volunteer Roger Hailey writes:

House spider
House spider, Tegenaria spp.

Biting British spiders. That’s all of them – all spiders bite. It’s how they seize and immobilise their prey, using fangs on their chelicerae, and most inject neurotoxic or cytotoxic venom that acts on nerves and tissue respectively. But, of our 670 native species, only about 12, a mere (1.8%), are capable of biting humans and even these are rarely problematic.

Insect bites are part of life and wasp stings may even cause death by anaphylaxis but usually go unreported, whereas spider bites, characterised by two puncture marks when correctly diagnosed, provoke a flurry of journalistic activity supported by acquired arachnophobia and centuries of well entrenched spider fallacies – and most scare stories are about imported species arriving in produce. The truth is that in the UK spiders rarely bite humans, even when provoked and most spider bites occur when they are trapped inside clothing or bedclothes, or handled carelessly. People’s responses vary widely but most rashes or bites attributed to ‘spider bite’ have other causes – they are almost never a spider. Many wounds illustrated in the media are misattributed and inconsistent with genuine spider bites and their effects.

A honey bee caught in the web of a false widow spider (Steadoda sp.). Captured by Museum of Zoology Assistant Director Jack Ashby, on his windowsill. Hertfordshire, UK.

However, a few native spiders can deliver a bite if mishandled and one such is a water spider (Argyroneta aquatica). Patchily distributed and found in clear water, it is said to be less painful than some insects. The woodlouse spider (Dysdera crocata) evolved powerful fangs to pierce the carapaces of woodlice and they too may bite if trapped or mishandled. So will the female false widow spider (Steatoda nobilis) if disturbed. Found mostly in the S of England it is nocturnal and rarely encountered.

The commonest human/spider encounters are probably with the large house spiders that suddenly gallop across our floors in autumn while we watch TV. Despite their size they are temperate, harmless and safely handled; if you can, just put a glass over it, carefully slide a postcard under it and relocate it outside.

The upsurge in interest in natural history since the 2020 lockdown will hopefully increase our understanding of these fascinating creatures. Yes, they’re hairy, move suddenly and have up to eight beady eyes (some jumping spiders can turn and really look at you) but they are very small; they’re beautifully put together and are beneficial. The American children’s book Charlotte’s Web by E B White has done much to increase understanding the lives of spiders and with that our tolerance of these biomechanical marvels.

On a personal note, I was once bitten by a woodlouse spider; while repairing an old wall I disturbed it in some rubble. After the initial surprise and brief, mild discomfort I felt sort of … initiated.

Find out more about British Spiders on our blogpost: Your Friendly Neighbourhood British Spiders

Tasmanian Devil, Sarcophilus harrisii

Museum Assistant Director Jack Ashby writes:

Tasmanian devil skeleton
Tasmanian devil skeleton

Several animals have names borrowed from classic Halloween monsters, such as vampire squid, ghost shrimp and the recently described zombie frog, but few were actually feared to be the horror in question.

The Europeans that invaded Tasmania in 1803 described hearing devilish sounds coming through the dark of the night, and feared for what beast may be awaiting them. I imagine them huddled in their cabins in the early days of the colony, wondering wide-eyed and terror-struck what the spine-chilling screams, guttural roars, and blood-curdling groans could be. When camping there myself, I’ve heard these calls too, and even knowing very well what they are, have found myself rather terrified, feeling vulnerable under the paper-thin nylon of my tent.

Fortunately for those colonists, their questions were easily answered, as they soon learned that the creature making the noises were easy to catch with meat as bait, and they could put a face to the sounds. Thanks to those early accounts of their calls, the species in question became known as the Tasmanian devil. I’m lucky to have worked with wild devils over the last ten years or so, and can say that – although they have one of the strongest bites of any mammal, and are extremely aggressive towards one another, particularly around food or mates – they are normally among the most docile animals I’ve ever handled.

But very occasionally they like to remind us where they got their name…

However, as babies, I’ve rarely encountered a more adorable animal – devils are certainly not a Halloween monster:

Baby Tasmanian devils
Baby Tasmanian devils in their mother’s pouch, at around four months old. © Jack Ashby

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