Ninety Nine World Records
(November 16th, 2017) What do you think of when you hear about “spiders”? Arachnids, walk on eight legs, make some people scream…, but Italian scientists find they can also teach us important lessons in organismal biology.
Mysterious and intriguing, spiders are either loved or hated to extremes. For Marco Isaia and Stefano Mammola, at the University of Turin in Italy, this is exactly what makes them so appealing for teaching basic concepts in biology. As a way to attract both scientists and non-scientists to the fascinating world of the 8-legged critters, these researchers have painstakingly compiled a list of 99 record-breaking spider achievements.
The list started at the end of 2015 during a Christmas party chat in the lab. The researchers were playing a game, posing each other some of the questions that are now answered on the list: "What is the longest spider species name?", "What is the most diverse spider family?", "Who is the most prolific arachnologist?". Most of this information is actually hard to uncover, even for arachnologists, so the researchers decided it would be an interesting tool to have such a list.
“Spiders, and arachnids in general, are animals that can simultaneously instil both terror and intrigue”, says Isaia. “Their charismatic nature makes it extraordinarily easy to attract even the most bio-phobic individual into arachnid-based discussions and activities. In addition, spiders are widespread and abundant, making them familiar and readily accessible to people everywhere”.
The choice to present their results as a list of records was also carefully planned. The authors say such a list can be used as a tool for teaching a wide range of topics at any level of education. For this audience, the information needs not only to be accurate, but also presented in a clear and enjoyable way. “I think that humans are naturally attracted by records and extremes, and thus a record-list is a very useful tool for engaging readers of all ages”, says Mammola.
The scientists hope this can be used as a source of inspiration about the extraordinary variety of facts and wonders provided by spider biology. “The numerous facts, observations, and even unknown facts offer intriguing content and inspiration for educators, provide engaging hooks for students and learners of all ages, and highlight potentially fruitful new directions for future scientific research”, says Isaia. In addition, says Mammola, this list “can help show that spiders are not ugly, brown and hairy creatures, and [it] will be very useful for answering the often bizarre questions that people pose about spiders”.
In fact, the list includes every possible extreme anybody can ask, from the smallest to the fastest runner, or from the most venomous to the largest prey. Even for the authors, there were quite a few surprising entries. “The most surprising for me were the ones related to the ability of spiders to colonise extreme habitats, such as high mountain peaks (up to 6,000 m altitude), the hottest deserts (Death Valley) and the coldest places on Earth (Siberia)”, says Isaia. “Spiders actually colonise all types of ecosystems”. Mammola is also very fond of many entries in the list. “Probably, the ‘most legs’ and ‘fussiest spider’ entries are the one that surprised me the most”.
Above all, the authors hope to raise public awareness about spiders. “There is tons of fake news about animals and science in general”, concludes Isaia. “Only if scientists are more prevalent, can we increase the public scientific culture and combat the world of sensationalism, which is generally full of misbelief”.
Just in case you were wondering, the spider with the longest scientific name is Dipoena santaritadopassaquatrensis Rodrigues.