The Woodlouse Spider

Since September, I have been very much down south: Chichester, and most recently, Bognor. I’m only three hours at the most from my native Suffolk, but some of the differences I’ve come across in terms of wildlife are fairly startling— particularly the size and kind of spiders.

Despite a few choice nightmares, I am not worried by spiders. Last week though, I found myself re-evaluating this position. Coming home from Easter Vigils, I walked into my bathroom to find myself face to face with a Woodlouse Spider. For the sake of any arachnophobes out there, I’m leaving out the pictures, but suffice to say, they are unnerving looking creatures. With a dark red thorax and legs, and a cream, ovoid, abdomen, this one appeared unusually glossy, and moved in a way that seemed beguilingly calculated. I noted in particular, that if I breathed out hard from the other side of the room (about two metres away), the spider would stop in its tracks. Bearing in mind it didn’t freeze when I walked in and turned the light on, I must assume it has some kind of chemoreceptors that react to breath (I am no arachnologist). I repeated this process a few times, and eventually it stopped reacting and continued its way along the bathroom wall.

A few things struck me about this spider in particular. First off, the contrast in size between it and the Woodlouse Spiders I’d come across back in East Anglia. In this part of the world, with a warmer climate (Bognor boasts that it’s the sunniest part of the UK, I beg to differ), this was the largest I’d ever seen. From chelicerae to spinneret, it was 2cm long, which I’m fairly sure is unusual even for this weird part of the world. What got to me more than anything else though, was the strange, unnerving feeling of being watched.

In her first novel Under the Net, Iris Murdoch mentions how the spider is the smallest creature that is capable of making people feel that they are being watched. As the protagonist observes:

I am very sensitive to observation, and not only have this feeling in the presence of human beings but in that of small animals. Once I even traced the source of it to a large spider whose mysterious eyes were fixed upon me. In my experience the spider is the smallest creature whose gaze can be felt. (‘Under the Net’)

At this moment, I could easily believe it. The spider made its meticulous way along the wall and I turned my back to see if the feeling would go away. It didn’t. This was curious. I stared at the spider a bit longer: its gait, one shared by other spiders that actively hunt their prey, was perhaps, I considered bringing out the fear in me. After all, the mannerisms of a hunter are (at least outwardly) fairly universal across species. I thought about the species of insect which I had observed treating me as their prey: the Assassin Bug which bit me so painfully it woke me up, the Elk Flies you get in Sweden that have a nasty habit of dropping out of trees onto you as you pass below. One even survived being hit with my copy of The Faerie Queene (it’s a huge book), something which would have at least stunned me. And of course, there is everybody’s favourite, the Mosquito. In his later essay ‘Sleeping and Waking’, F. Scott Fitzgerald recounts an encounter with a lone Mosquito that he pinpoints as the first time he began to suffer from insomnia. He writes:

It is astonishing how much worse one mosquito can be than a swarm. A swarm can be prepared against, but one mosquito takes on a personality— a hatefulness, a sinister quality of a struggle to the death. (‘Sleeping and Waking’)

Abstracted out from the multitude of the swarm, the Mosquito comes to take on a significance far beyond what we’d normally attribute to it. It is no longer a simple case of kill it and go back to sleep, but a ‘struggle’. What Fitzgerald encounters is an otherly gaze, a bewildering and unexpectedly potent one, that threatens to upset the hierarchy that places him and humankind above such insects. Like the Murdoch quoted above, the very possibility of some sort of insect agency is imbued with a creeping kind of horror. This creeping horror comes to a climax in Fitzgerald’s account when, having finally killed his antagonist, he notes:

… the Pyrrhic victory, and the small mangled spot of blood, my blood, on the headboard of the bed. (‘Sleeping and Waking’)

The horror is twofold here. Fitzgerald, presented with his own blood, is given a painful reminder of his own mortality. The spot’s bathetic size, its mangled state evokes a needling sense of insignificance. What’s worse though is the sense that, if only for a short while, his blood was inside another creature. Not only has the creature, at least for a brief time, had some kind of conception of him as an object, but now literally contains and surrounds him. What Fitzgerald so keenly feels is the assault of an insect other, and the precariousness of his own superiority to them. It’s chillingly apt that he calls his triumph a ‘ Pyrrhic victory’.

An important fact that I have so far failed to mention about the Woodlouse Spider is that it is one of the few spiders in this country capable of penetrating human skin. It’s bite is, of course, harmless, less painful than a bee sting— but painful all the same. I put my hand in front of the spider and it gradually begins to explore my palm. I should not be so apprehensive. But it is not so much the pain of a bite that worries me, but the humiliation of it— the idea that such a small creature should be capable of inducing in me a state I have little or no control over. Among many things, pain is a crucial, though much mourned and maligned, link between us and the non-human world of creatures. And worse than this, the sense of being watched has intensified. I fancy I can almost feel my whole self slowly being reeled in, compressed down, and couched in the coils of that arthropod’s nervous system. It sees and senses me. I put it down.

I wonder at what point it becomes possible to feel a genuine, relatable, solidarity for a creature— or whether it’s possible at all to make distinctions between life forms without slipping into a profound hypocrisy. After all, to a certain degree, we have a lot in common: our needs for warmth, nutriment, space, etc— those needs so often called ‘basic’ which are in fact the most complicated of all. But I did feel solidarity for this Woodlouse Spider, with its, for want of a better word, ignorance, more than anything else. I felt solidarity for the fact it could not feel my solidarity— and even self-pitied myself a little— in that, like the spider, so much in life must constantly be streaming over my head— beyond and through and past me, without my even noticing, save when some poetic glitch turns up and forces me to look again, or some deep, animal response, causes me to freeze not knowing why or how. But that’s something for another day. The Woodlouse Spider goes back to investigating the space behind the bathroom mirror and I return to my room to think. Pausing, I realise with a laugh, that of course, the spider does not care at all about any of this. To me this is somehow both the most and least important thing I could have learnt from our encounter.

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Happy (belated) World Pangolin day

When I say ‘belated’, I mean it. I had intended to start this blog– as somewhere to keep my thoughts on all things animal shaped– right the way back in February. Unfortunately, my inability to find a calm moment to write quickly put a stop to that. So now, seeing that the moment I’ve been waiting for is very unlikely to arrive any time soon, I’ve decided to take the plunge and put something in writing.

And when I say ‘take the plunge’ this is closer to the reality

That ‘something’ is ‘The Pangolin’: or to avoid generalising too much from the outset, the eight species that constitute the genus. The name comes from the Malay dialect word ‘pengguling’, meaning “something that rolls up”. They are also sometimes known as scaly anteaters on account of the overlapping keratin scales that cover many of the species from head to tail. Despite filling a similar ecological niche to their neotropical counterparts (Tamanduas, Giant Anteaters, etc), they are genetically unrelated. Pangolins subsist entirely on ants and termites. As such, they are equipped with powerful front claws, thick eyelids, valves in their ears and nose to protect them from their prey, and a long, sticky tongue, that for one species is the longest of any mammal.  When approached or threatened, they tend to curl up into a ball, protecting their throat and belly from attack. As far as creatures like Lions are concerned, this is pretty effective; when it comes to poachers though, it is unfortunately not.

One resigned looking Lion

From the perspective of those who are involved with conservation efforts in the field, Pangolins are shy and rarely seen creatures, being primarily nocturnal. They change den sites regularly, and live solitary lives save for when they meet to breed or when a female is caring for her offspring. In captivity, they are reported to be inquisitive and trusting once they have become adjusted to their surroundings. They are, however, especially vulnerable to stress, and as such suffer from a prohibitively high mortality rate of 70-80% when it comes to rehabilitating poached animals which have been seized from traffickers. Given their diet and disposition, they do not survive well in captivity, although in some cases they have lived nearly as long as 20 years.

Unfortunately, the word ‘Pangolin’ is never heard far from words like ‘extinction’ and phrases such as ‘critically endangered’, ‘most trafficked’, and ‘illegal trade’. The effects of this are something I intend to dwell on another time, but for now, these are a few of the statistics I find the most shocking:

  1. Over the last decade it is believed that more thanone million Pangolins have been taken from the wild.
  2. Between May 2007 and January 2009, one crime syndicate alone was responsible for having taken 22,200 Pangolins from the wild, as well as dealing in up to 834.4kg of scales.
  3. And this article on E360, which sums up just how much of a challenge preventing Pangolins becoming extinct will be.

And yet, despite the trafficking, be it for traditional ‘medicine’, for consumption by Asia’s burgeoning nouveau riche, or simply for bushmeat, there are people who care. A number of Vietnamese celebrities have shown their support for Pangolin conservation, and even Prince William, despite his brother’s somewhat dubious approach to the care of protected species, has recently claimed the Pangolin as one of his favourite animals. David Attenborough has also expressed his love of Pangolins, giving them a place on his ark of endangered animals. Closer to the Pangolins themselves, the Tikki Hywood trust remains a good source of encouraging Pangolin-related news, as does this blog concerning the release of rescued Sunda Pangolins back into the wild.

Despite this, I understand that, in many ways, I am grasping at straws. Against the overwhelming amount of Pangolins being taken from the wild, and the entrenched nature of the trade of them throughout society (be it the poachers who take them, the traffickers who organise / coordinate sales and smuggling, or their consumers), the outlook is dim. Since I encountered Pangolins a few years ago now, they’ve all been added to the IUCN Red list with the Sunda Pangolin and Chinese Pangolin being rated ‘Critically endangered’. Disturbingly, the African species of Pangolin are not nearly as safe as people once thought they were. The demand has now reached a point where shipments from Africa to Asia of Pangolin meat and scales are often discovered. What sets the Pangolin apart from other poached animals is, that so much of the animal can be transformed into profit on the black market: be it scales for traditional ‘medicine’, or meat for consumption in restaurants. Although conservation efforts have been stepped up in recent months (to attempt to close legislation gaps, promote education, establish species strongholds, etc), much remains to be done to halt the decline of this unique species.

Ecology, the arts, and sometimes both…

I intend to keep it short and sweet: in this blog my hope is to document my thoughts on ecology and the arts– and especially on the things that happen when the two meet (as they often do). Pangolins will feature heavily, as will poetry, other overlooked and endangered species, and maybe some other bits and pieces that come along too. We shall have to see…