"Gateway" spiders: Evolving our behavior & getting friendly with organisms on the "nope" spectrum

I guess I have had the average human’s level of phobia related to spiders. I haven’t ever been terrified of them, but I have kept my distance and/or stepped on one when it was in a house or if I felt threatened by one. That has gradually changed over time as I have come to appreciate insects, spiders, and lots of other sorts of creatures - and realized that none of them are intending to bring harm to me.

My dad has always been a “step on it first and ask questions later” kind of guy. That has bothered me for a long time.

I am currently fascinated by moths and my kids have been learning about them with me. I am happy that my kids have become really interested all kinds of living animals and treat them with respect. My daughter, age 7, is very tactile and always wants to hold or touch anything that she can. She usually asks me before doing so, to make sure it is safe. I know the few spiders that we should beware of where we live, so when she asks me if she can hold a spider and I know it’s not a Black Widow or a Brown Recluse I tell her yes. This last weekend she spent a couple hours holding this Tetragnatha while we were out on a boat with my parents. They looked on in horror (but thankfully not criticizing my parenting) as I let her become friends with this creature that most people would squish.

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My first and only real insect love story. I’m kind of getting obsessed with them in an amateurish way but slowly increasing my knowledge. Moths have altered my behavior and I can’t get enough of them.

On the spider front: I pet a spider today. Gently, of course. I wasn’t exactly “cool with it” but I wanted to push myself and I found myself feeling such a respect for this spider mama holding onto her eggies.
If you’re interested in more spidey soap operas, check it:
https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/27666346

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I don’t know if @bothrops07 and @JeremyHussell mind my endless pestering with questions and repetitive @ mentions (if they do they’ve been too polite to tell me to go away) but I realized that part of why I bother these two generous souls more than others is because I am too afraid to get a dedicated spider field guide and through my interactions with them I learn whatever I learn and they make IDs and teach me things. That’s great and I’m super grateful but if there was a spider field guide for only Salticidae (Northeast North America?) with a key or other tool(s) that was simple enough for amateurs to utilize I could probably start making my own IDs and being more spider-self-sufficient and less annoying.

Spider people, does such a nice little guide exist? I have a few insect guides that have some scary spider photos which sometimes prevent me from opening them and risking the view I can’t turn away from. If I could get my confidence built a little maybe my journey towards fear of no spiders will gear up. It would provide me a sense of control knowing I could look at pages of jumpers without running into obscenely large, terrifying, “I see you looking at me, Mira…I know where you live,”-type, spiders.

I’ll post whatever suggestions percolate here in the favorite field guides topic too. I’ll also post the question there in case others won’t see this thread.

in lieau of a specific ID guide, here is the taxa list as observed in iNat:

https://inaturalist.nz/observations?nelat=50&nelng=-58&place_id=any&swlat=34&swlng=-92&taxon_id=48139&view=species

Thanks. I’ve looked at the taxa list but I’m hoping to have a way to learn as I go and be able to make IDs with. Currently, I do my best by looking at the taxa info on the page and sometimes links but I am old-fashioned in some ways and prefer a book I can always access regardless of the internet and technology situation.

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Oh my gosh, I relate to your post 100%! I grew up super arachnophobic. I didn’t kill spiders, but not because I liked them - but because I was afraid I wouldn’t kill them all the way and then they’d run up my leg or arm and get me. Instead I’d ask other people to do it. My dad and older brother showed me the movie Arachnophobia when I was young and already terrified, saying it was a comedy movie, and to this day I can’t flick a string coming off a spider’s web!

But then, a few things happened. Twelve years ago, I started teaching at a Nature Center / Environmental Education place. They have a lot of live animal ambassadors, including a few tarantulas. I wanted to teach all the things, so I sucked it up and learned to hold the big furry spiders. I made my peace with them, in part because I heard they were not true spiders - one difference is that they have fangs underneath, not in front, and can tuck them away when they aren’t interested in biting. I liked that very much. I checked them each time I picked them up, and the fangs were always tucked. They were very docile species, raised by people, and actually really soft.

Later that year, a jumping spider appeared, and my friend & coworker @jessicafriedman180 pointed him out to me. I went to take a picture, hesitantly, and only because she’d said it was neat. Then it jumped at my camera lens and I dropped the camera and screamed! She explained it was a jumping spider. My first reaction: “A spider that jumps?!? NO THANK YOU.” But she held him (!!) and he seemed really curious, and had such big eyes. She let me know they don’t bite people. I didn’t hold that one, but made a mental note. They might be ok. But then, I saw more of them. Many more! They liked the picnic benches we sat at with the kids. I took the phrase “Fake it til you make it” to an extreme. When kids got scared of the spiders and wanted to hurt them, I pointed out we were in the spiders’ home. I let the spiders stay. One day a jumper crawled on me… and I didn’t fling it into oblivion. I let it be on me. I faked a smile. I showed the kids. I said “Isn’t this cool?” I hid the panic. And slowly, I stopped panicking. I recognized, ok they’re kinda cute. Dang it, they’re really cute. I like them! I LIKE THEM! And during that time, I started faking ok-ness with other spiders. I’d gotten a camera that does great close-ups, and I took close-up pictures of everything… and started including spiders in that, and their webs. I still didn’t love them all, and didn’t touch any but jumpers, but I could get close and take their picture. They didn’t attack me. They didn’t seem to care I was there. Sometimes they looked much prettier in a close-up than I’d noticed. I’d show the kids, and we’d all get excited together. One day, I even took a photo of a black widow up close. It just sat there, which meant - I could do that again. As as iNaturalist came into my life, the photos increased tremendously.
@jessicafriedman180 even called me out on it, saying “It’s pretty amazing that someone so arachnophobic takes so many pictures of spiders!”

I still don’t want to be near a black widow (other than going in for a close-up). I still can’t stand the feeling of a web on me. But I enjoy finding spiders, and taking their picture. I’ve let a wild tarantula crawl over my shoe. I’ve sought out spiders and photographed many. (I’m still catching up with posting them all.) I’ve watched spiderlings hatch without running for the door. I’ve learned to live with some, and scoop others up (with a jar) and move them, instead of squishing them. And I give credit to that first little jumper.

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I have a field guide to insects, spiders, and more. I actually gave it away to my dad because the spider pictures creeped me out, and then once I started working at a Nature Center and had people come in asking about help ID’ing spiders they’d found, I asked for it back so I could try and help people. But I had the same thing for a long time - certain pictures Freaked. Me. Out.

The trick? I put post-its over those pictures. Then I never saw them by accident. =) And as I got to be more comfortable with spiders, I started removing post-its I no longer needed.

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This is a fantastic idea! Thanks. That’ll definitely work on the few guides I have with spiders I don’t need to look at :neutral_face: I would still love a ‘just jumpers’ guide. Maybe in a few years we can create our own? (By “we” I mean iNaturalists not necessarily including me unless I write an introduction with @seakay about overcoming phobia)

I think the comment about faking it and demonstrating respect/ sharing information etc., especially with children, is especially notable. Even though I’m not a formal educator any interaction with the public is an opportunity to model balance and respect for the natural world (a term I find funny since it kind of excludes us, another species). I just removed an orb weaver from the break room at the grocery chain where I work. I was explaining to all the people who were staying on the other side of the room, and thinking I was nuts, that I’m actually afraid but don’t want to take it out on the spider. It was bad enough I had to destroy the hours of work on the web and uproot it but murder was unnecessary. I explained how I am making a conscious effort to make myself uncomfortable and push my boundaries by interacting with them and slowly dissolving my fears. It is becoming sillier and sillier to call myself an arachnophobe while holding a spider in a mug. I was still shuddering and having my normal phobic reaction I just tried to minimize its public appearance. Still not holding any spiders.

I have been bringing mosquitoes that have met their fate at the hands of my insane startle reflex to my xysticus friend who is still waiting for her eggs to do their thing. I have so many questions for another topic about the ethics of feeding things or intervening at all. I wrestle with these things a lot. In the meantime, bringing snacks to a spider that may or may not be consuming them is helping me normalize a relationship with a species I would have had someone “deal” with in the past. I’ll take the progress and reflect more later.

Thanks for sharing your story too. :)

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Hi! You are in the US I think? There is a lovely little guide called Spiders and their Kin, which was written by a scientist Prof Herbert Levi (unfortunately recently deceased) and his wife Lorna Levi. It is all drawings except the photo of the tarantula on the cover of my edition. I think drawings are less threatening if you are phobic. Although I live in South Africa I find this book a very useful overview. It covers the other orders of arachnids, also myriapods and crustaceans (in brief). Hopefully it is still in print. ISBN 1-58238-156-9.
You’ve got to start somewhere … my journey from arachnophobia to love of spiders started with a book!

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The Australian writer Lynne Kelly describes her journey in her book Spiders Learning to Love Them. Lynne describes how she named the burrowing wolf spiders and others in her garden to try to tamp down her fear. She also discusses the phobia itself, and why spiders are generally not to be feared.

I highly recommend this book.

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Agree! Thanks for the suggestion, I’ll start looking for it. I also have named a few spiders but I do have a current practice of generally referring to anything I find that I think is lovable (working towards everything) as, “Meshugganah ______.” This is the transliteration of the yiddish word for crazy which if you grew up in a culture where teasing means love can be used as a term of endearment. Part of the reason I need to live far away from other non-anthropomorphizing or nature-appreciating humans is that I don’t need to be overheard wandering around saying, “Good morning, meshugganah spidey-face (makes them distinctly less terrifying), how are the eggies doing today?” Someone send help when I start greeting “Meshugganah powdery mildew!”

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Whatever it takes especially if it works for you.

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I can totally relate, although I do kinda get a kick out of the strange looks on peoples faces :)

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I’m actually writing one. It is an arduous task, to say the least. Trying to put some of these subtleties into simple to understand terms is difficult, but I’m getting there. It is mostly focused on Oklahoma (as I can’t afford to pay for photographs from all over the US), but with around 100 species in Oklahoma, it will be relevant throughout the US, moreso the closer to Oklahoma you are.

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This week I hit 50 (named) species/genera of spiders in iNat observations and I definitely questioned myself the way some of you have, “so you have an awful lot of spider photos for someone who is terrified of them…what gives?”

I have also found that while possibly harder to ID…spiderlings are quite cute and make good gateway encounters even if they turn into giant terrifying beasts some of us must run from.

Anyway, I’m making significant progress pushing boundaries. I found my first Spined micrathena and I really enjoyed hanging out with her as she painstakingly tended to web construction. I didn’t interfere at all but I kind of wanted to hold her and just see…“is it that scary?” I’m sure she appreciates my hands-off appreciation but it’s definitely a good sign of my personal evolution that I’m even considering such a thing.

Another opportunity to push the spider envelope happened when I got to tour the insect collection at Cornell University (NY, USA). While I was focused on studying insects like microleps, I did force myself to look at the large and scary spiders and hold specimen jars with big leggy things (scientific terminology of course) until I thought my visceral reaction could result in accidental dropping. There weren’t a lot of arachnids in the collection but while not an easily accessible activity I recognized it as yet another in a series of actions one can take to challenge oneself further in a quest for “nope” organism friendship…or at least, respect from a distance.

@bothrops07 (salticidude, great new handle by the way!) I’d offer to help you out but that’s probably not all that helpful. If I can do some volunteer copy editing or something that requires less technical expertise, let me know. I’m psyched to hear that you’re working on such a salticid project!

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I just found this topic here, and it makes me happy to see so many people overcoming their fear of spiders! I’ve been through the same process, overcoming my own fear simply through taking macro photos of them and seeing them in all their detail, instead of seeing the generic “creepy critter with too many legs” that they can appear to the naked eye. Salticids, of course, are the cutest, but there are so many other fascinating or beautiful spiders as well.

I didn’t set out to take pictures of spiders - I take pictures of any small creatures or plants. I surprised myself at first when I started pointing my lens at spiders, but, why not? I was interested in all the little critters that had details too small to appreciate without a macro lens.

Before iNaturalist existed, @jciv and I both found ourselves with so many spider photos that we decided to post one on Flickr every day for a week in October, which quickly grew to the whole month when we realized we had enough for that. A third friend was independently holding her own spider blitz, and when she realized we were all posting spiders, she came up with a name. Thus was born Arachtober. We started that in 2007, and it just gains more followers and platforms as time goes on. It really warms our hearts, seeing such an interest in spiders spreading like that, and all the comments that come in reaction to the photos about others overcoming their own fears.

Speaking of which, I better start prepping my photos from the past year for this Arachtober! :-D

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Corresponding iNat project in the works?

Thanks much for sharing that, Ashley. Your photography is beautiful. I have made much progress even since I last wrote. I won’t bore you all with the details but I’m excited and it feels weird to call myself phobic though I definitely still am, just much less so.

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Haha! As I typed that, I considered it for five seconds, but on Flickr (and now Instagram and Twitter) it’s just for fun and only lasts one month. There are already some good arachnid projects going here. Thanks for the compliment! I’m really glad you like my photos. The plant photos are more general in quality, since I use my phone, but most arthropod photos are forced to be better because they require better equipment to get a good shot, being mostly too small to get a good shot with my phone. :-)

And even years later I’m still hesitant around spiders sometimes, and will jump up with a squeak when one I’m photographing on a table charges me quickly and goes over the edge into my lap! I’m pretty sure the huge Dolomedes I once spotted on my couch arm got a “Holy- !” out of me, too.

Keep at it! :-D

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