Spiders, up close and personal

Consider the spider. True, they can be terrifying to some squeamish humans—they all have venom of some sort and fangs to inject their poisons. And the only earthly refuge for an arachnophobe is Antarctica, the sole continent on which the eight-legged critters don’t live. But also consider: Bees and wasps kill more humans a year than spiders—which do in fewer than seven people annually in the United States. And arachnids eat 400 million to 800 million tons of food a year, mostly insects. They also produce silk that’s five times stronger than steel, a feat yet to be matched by people. They can come in sizes as small as a fingernail (like the long-winged kite spider, above) or bigger than a dinner plate (like the giant huntsman). Researchers have recently started to untangle spider biology and evolution using genomics and other molecular methods, but as these images reveal, the sheer diversity and ingenuity of this group should inspire awe—not shivers. As Nathan Morehouse, a spider expert at the University of Cincinnati in Ohio points out: “Some people think spiders are really ugly, but their body shapes are adapted for what they need to do.”