Dr. Eleanor's Book of Common Spiders

Dr. Eleanor's Book of Common Spiders
by Christopher M. Buddle & Eleanor Spicer Rice
University of Chicago Press, 2018

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If you've ever sat in the grass, in the park or near a pond, you likely spent time flicking away bugs. Ants are the worst, most egregious offenders. Gnats and mosquitos share a close second. Other critters are too quick to flick, namely jumping spiders. They'll leap from your shorts to your backpack and even onto the page of the book you're reading—and you should let them. Don't shoo them away, but look closer at the eight round, shiny eyes. I've done so, and these harmless little hunters tilt themselves to look right back.

Authors Christopher Buddle and Eleanor Spicer Rice have a Bold Jumper on the cover of Dr. Eleanor's Book of Common Spiders, a slim volume for anyone—especially young people—passionate about arachnids. They begin by mentioning that spiders are from a larger family of animals called arthropods (like crabs, lobsters, and millipedes), and that it's easy to identify arachnids in the wild: 2 body parts + 8 legs – wings = spider.

Full disclosure—I knew Jumpers were cute before Lucas the Spider hit YouTube. They're nowhere near as large and ferocious-looking as the individual pictured above. After their introduction on different kinds of webs and eye arrangements, Buddle and Rice list thirteen common spiders (and one uncommon), with plenty of close-up color photos by Sean McCann and others.

Our specialists don't just stream facts, but blend in entertaining myth and personal stories. Regarding the Writing Spider, whose web contains a thick zipper or stabilimentum, we're told:

In the Southern United States, legend has it that if you see your name written in a spider's web, you'll be the next to die. Every summer and fall, when I was a child, I would lean over the side of our porch, between the boxwood and the water meter, where our writing spiders set up shop. I would peer into the zigzag zippering the middle of these webs, terrified I'd see my name or, worse, the name of one of my parents or my brother. Each year, I would feel very sorry for Mr. ZZZZZZ or Mrs. NNNNNN, depending on which way I turned my head.

And because the natural world is so gloriously varied, there are fresh tidbits in this book for those who've read all their Dawkins and seen every episode of Planet Earth. For example there's the Bowl and Doily Spider, whose web isn't sticky, but is instead a mechanical trap that uses a smooth bottom “bowl” layer topped by a “disorganized snarl” of thread that prevents insects from escaping.

Still, the image of many spiders as bright, bulbous venom splotches in an otherwise green world makes me shudder. Ancient mammalian instinct, I suppose. Orb Weavers are especially creepy, and they've surprised me numerous times as I've roamed wild (and urban) spaces and nearly walked through a web with a chitinous jewel hanging in the center.

Buddle and Rice's best advice comes at the end of a section on Fishing Spiders, when they address younger audiences with wisdom that adults should also heed: “Take a minute, take a breath, and watch what's happening before you freak out... Enjoy this encounter! Ask questions!” A final section offers step-by-step advice on collecting spiders (both living and dead) and joining arachnid-minded groups in person and on social media. Just stay away from that Parker kid—he's a real creep.

Justin Hickey is a freelance writer living in Boston and completing his first science fiction novel.