Category Archives: environment

dance of the tarantula and other spider myths

Right now the American Museum of Natural History is running an exhibition about arachnids called “Spiders Alive!” 

brown recluse

image via american museum of natural history

The exclamation is with good reason since the spiders really are alive. Safely ensconced behind glass but alive all the same. I’m not one of those people who gets freaked out by spiders but, even so, there’s something inherently creepy about them. Maybe it’s those wonderfully sinister names, which look like they could be splashed across the title sequence of a fifties B-movie: The Black Widow! The Brown Recluse! Tarantula!

Actually, the tarantula is a good example of how the popular imagination has demonized spiders. The vision of a hairy-legged tarantula coming in through an open window at night is a cinematic shorthand for everything that makes our skin crawl about them.

But even their name is a testament to the mythology of fear we’ve built around them. In ancient times the inhabitants of Taranto, a town in southern Italy, were terrified of a species of wolf spider which lived locally. When they were bitten by the spider the townsfolk would perform a frenetic dance in the belief that this would shake out the poison (though it turns out the spider’s venom was not fatal to humans). 

When early European colonizers of the New World were faced with the big hairy spiders of the tropics they recalled the dance of Taranto when finding a name for these creatures. The irony is that tarantulas pose virtually no threat to humans because – counter-intuitive as it might sound – bigger spiders tend to have less powerful venom.

In fact, while most spiders produce venom fewer than one percent are dangerous to humans. That’s just 200 species out of a total of over 42,000. Of course our fear of arachnids is not totally groundless. Some can give you a nasty bite, others can jolt you with a wicked dose of poison and a few of them occasionally kill.

Gooty sapphire ornamental spider

image via american museum of natural history

Many species of spider are dimorphic, which means the female is larger than the male. This means you’re much worse off getting bitten by a female black widow since she carries more poison. Most humans will survive a bite from a black widow (though you should seek medical help immediately, especially in the case of the elderly or young children). The same cannot always be said of the amorous male black widow who is frequently killed and eaten immediately after mating.

Arachnophobia, or the fear of spiders, is one of the most common phobias. According to some statistics, around 10 percent of men and 50 percent of women have an irrational fear of arachnids, which also include scorpions. If this is really true then you can’t help feeling sorry for the poor spider, who seems fated to suffer from a permanent image crisis. Fortunately for our arachnid cousins, this exhibition goes some way to redressing the balance by explaining just how amazing these creatures are.

Did you know, for example, that spiders have been on earth for 300 million years? Or that they taste with the hairs on their legs? Here’s another interesting tidbit: In the World War II the U.S. Army used black widow silk to make crosshairs for sighting devices on their weaponry. Meanwhile, in 2010 scientists identified a spider silk, from the caerostris darwini species on Madagascar, which is ten times tougher than Kevlar.

the black widow

image via american museum of natural history

Near the end of this brilliant exhibition there’s a talk by an arachnid expert who takes out a live tarantula to show the crowd. When I was there most of the audience were kids.

“How did you get to work with spiders?” One little boy asked in the Q&A, evidently eyeing the expert’s job for himself.

“It’s simple,” she answered. “You just have to really love them.”

Easier said than done for a lot of us I would imagine.



A version of this story was first published on CNN’s science blog, Light Years, June 19, 2012. 

The summer is upon us and if you live somewhere relatively hot or you’re going some place hot for your holidays, there’s a good chance you’ll see fireflies.


I live in Brooklyn, New York, and when I look out my bedroom window I can see them hovering in the yard, tiny balls of yellow light that flicker on and off in the dusk like lighters at a rock concert.

Fireflies are quite a common sight although for how long we don’t know. There have been widespread reports that fireflies numbers are dwindling. The reports are all anecdotal but they were enough of a concern for entomologists and biologists to convene a symposium in Thailand in 2008 entitled, “Diversity and Conservation of Fireflies.”

If fireflies are under threat it’s a terrible state of affairs. They are a unique and interesting creature and their loss ultimately would be our loss. They belong to a very exclusive group of land creatures that exhibit a phenomenon known as bioluminescence.

In simple terms, bioluminescence is technique certain organisms have developed to create energy, in the form of light, via a chemical reaction. This reaction often involves a chemical called luciferin.

Fireflies are unique because most bioluminescent creatures – 80 percent – live in the sea. On land only certain insects and fungi are bioluminescent.

It was in the ocean that I first found out about the phenomenon.

I grew up in England where we don’t get fireflies. We get things called glow worms, which are not worms at all but flightless insects. They’re hard to spot since they’re usually hidden away in long grass or hedgerows. Consequently most Brits will probably tell you that their only recollection of a glow worm growing up was via the pages of a cute children’s story.

It was few years ago and I was on Lombok, a tiny island next to Bali, when I first experienced the weird spectacle of nature flickering to light in the darkness. I went for a midnight swim and started to feel a strange prickling sensation and when I dipped my head underwater and ran my hand in front of me it was as if the Milky War had been miniaturized and liquified at the same time.

The trial of sparks left by your moving hand in bioluminescent waters is caused by single-cell organisms called dinoflagellates. They’re a mysterious organism scientists don’t fully understand. They’re a form of plankton and while they feed on prey and move around like animals, they can also convert the sun’s rays into food using chlorophyll in the same way plants do.

If you want to see the coolest bioluminescent creatures though, you’ve got to go into deep water.

Unless you’re James Cameron or that ridiculous (sorry, I mean romantic) couple who got wed on the deck of the wreck of the Titanic, you probably can’t afford a ride in a deep sea submersible to the ocean bottom.

Don’t despair though. If you’re lucky enough to be in the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) anytime soon you can check out there wonderful exhibition “Creatures of Light: Nature’s Bioluminescence,” which runs till January next year.

Here, fireflies rub shoulders with the creatures of the deep. In total 80 percent of deep sea organisms are bioluminescent, and certain of them have developed fascinating and elaborate ways of illuminating the permanent night.

Anglerfish, which are frankly hideous-looking things, get their name from the modified spine which sticks out of their forehead just like a fishing rod. The rod is topped with a lure that pulses with bacterial light.

Anglerfish, like most deep sea creatures, emit blue light because it’s easier to detect at these depths. An exception is the stoplight loosejaw dragonfish which gives off red light from indents just below its eyes. The loosejaw gets its name from the fact that its jaw can dislocate from its mouth when it’s hunting prey. Consequently it looks quite a lot like the alien in Predator (which I watched as a child when I’d grown out of the cute glow worm stories).

The AMNH exhibit contains many more highlights, including a small replica of a cave in New Zealand where thousands of fly larvae have turned the ceiling into a festival of stars.

Walking around the exhibit I was reminded of the limitless capacity nature has to amaze. If you’re in New York and you have a spare afternoon, go see it. Failing that, take a look in your back yard.

james lovelock

James Lovelock refers to himself as a “planetary doctor.” As someone who has studied his patient for over 40 years, the 88-year-old scientist and originator of Gaia theory, has reached a bleak prognosis: the world as we know it is ceasing to exist.

The impact of humanity has set in train processes that, according to Lovelock, are irreversible. Pollution, overpopulation and carbon emissions have already pushed the earth’s delicate regulatory systems beyond the point of no return, he says, and steps to address the climate crisis can do no more than slow down the inevitable.

“What we did was to pull the trigger in all of those things and set in course a motion, a change in the Earth, which is to all intents and purposes unstoppable,” he tells CNN.

The legacy for future generations is a world where droughts and extreme weather are commonplace, large portions of the planet are turned to uninhabitable desert and billions of people destined to die off.

He has predicted that by 2040 the Sahara will be encroaching on Europe, and by 2100 there will be only 500 million of us surviving close to the poles.

It is a grim account of what’s in store, and at odds with a large portion of scientific opinion that contends that if we take action now to cut carbon emissions, we can at least mitigate some of the worst effects of climate change.

So why should we take notice of him? Well, for one thing history is on his side: The British scientist’s seemingly fanciful assessments of our world have proved right in the past.

In the 1960s he came up with a revolutionary understanding of how the world works. All living things, he theorized, have a regulatory effect on the Earth’s environment, working together as one complete “superorganism” to sustain life.

In other words, life itself creates the conditions for life.

This holistic view of the planet he named Gaia after the Greek goddess of the Earth on the suggestion of his neighbor at the time in the English county of Wiltshire, William Golding, the author Lord of the Flies.

At first embraced by the New Age and environmental movement but almost totally ignored by the scientific community, the essential truth of the Gaia hypothesis — that the Earth regulates itself — has since been adopted by the scientific mainstream.

“It’s a top down view of the planet looking at it as a whole system, and science unfortunately in the last century divided [the study of the earth] up into numerous specialties,” he says.

According to Lovelock, this is why his predictions on climate change are more extreme, but also more accurate than those of leading scientific bodies like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which he claims is limited in its assessment because it is made up of specialists whose focus is too narrow.

“The IPCC is made up largely of atmospheric physicists who are good at predicting the weather, but I’m not so sure that they are very good at predicting the future of the Earth.

“Likewise, the biologists who should be working with them are working separately and have produced the Millenium Ecosystem Assessments Commission’s report and that’s quite different from the IPCC and it’s mostly concerned with biodiversity and things like that.”

Although he offers some points of light — putting an aerosol layer of fine particles into the stratosphere to reflect back sunlight may, he says, could buy us some time by slowing down the rate of decline for a decade — his projections are on the whole brutally pessimistic.

Oddly however, he insists that he is himself an optimist by nature.

Listening to Lovelock it is easy to see why his theories caught on with New Age thinkers — there is a strain of spirituality in much of what he says.

He’s philosophical about the extinction of the human race, for example, viewing it as just another stage in the Earth’s life cycle.

“Humans always think of these things in grand and big terms, rather than as part of the natural course of events. There are all sorts of organisms that have evolved on the earth in its long, long four billion years of history.

“For example, organisms like the photo-synthesizers appeared and, ultimately turned the atmosphere into one with lots of oxygen in it … all sorts of dreadful things must have happened when that change took place.

“What we’re doing is small beer compared with what has happened in the past, and that’s why the earth is so robust and strong and will cope with it.”

As an environmentalist, he is also surprisingly upbeat about humanity in spite of the apparent mess we’ve made of the planet.

Without realizing it, he says, humans set into motion a train of events we didn’t realize we were in no position to control.

“We’re a wonderfully valuable species to our planet,” he says. “You see the great system has existed all those years and for the first time ever it’s had people talking about it, and we’re part of it, you see. So it’s beginning to understand its position in the universe.”

Humans may face an uncertain future but Gaia, it seems, will live on.

This article was first published on on 18 April, 2008

the party’s over

Imagine a life where each morning you cycle to work, and come home at night to tend your allotment and eat a dinner of locally produced food.

Maybe after your meal you take a walk down the car-free streets to the nearest bar where you buy a round of drinks with locally produced currency and settle down in a corner to watch a troupe of musicians play some local folk music.

It might sound like some kind of fairytale arcadia — a return to the simple lives of our forefathers, before fossil fuels and consumer culture turned everything on its head.

In fact this is how many people are beginning to envision our future — a world where we come to terms with inevitable fuel shortages and work towards a less energy-dependent lifestyle.

This vision has found a voice in the “transition initiative,” a movement that encourages towns, villages and cities across the world to begin the process of preparing themselves for a carbon-free world.

The first so-called transition town was pioneered in the southwest English town of Totnes, by the inventor of the concept Rob Hopkins, 18 months ago.

Since then almost 50 other places in Britain have signed up to the movement, as well as a smattering of towns in New Zealand and Australia.

Hopkins, 38, who lives with his family in Totnes, says people have seized upon the transition initiative because it offers an “empowering, inspiring” vision of the post-oil age.

“It has grown into a vacuum — there is nothing else that looks at ways to respond to peak oil and climate change that feels good,” Hopkins says.

Hopkins’ beliefs about the looming energy crisis are summed up by the title of American environmentalist writer Richard Heinberg’s 2003 book on the subject — “The Party’s Over.”

Heinberg, who provides the foreword to a handbook Hopkins has recently published on the transition initiative, estimates we are very close to reaching a state of peak oil — the point at which half of the world’s oil reserves have been used up and thereafter supply goes into freefall.

A lack of any viable alternative energy sources means human communities will have no choice but to cut back energy use, the book argues.

Since governments and big business seem unable, or else unwilling, to deal with these problems head-on, Hopkins believes the change must come in the first instance from the grassroots.

“We have to be looking to break our oil dependence and get to being a zero carbon society within 20 years. We don’t have any choice in this if we want our children to have any kind of lives.

“Of course, much of this needs to come from government level, but to make cuts of that nature will need a lot of things that don’t tend to make governments very popular, such as carbon rationing.

“The idea with transition is to engage communities in pushing for these things, so as to take the fear out of making these decisions for politicians.”

One way of doing this is through an “energy descent pathway,” a step-by-step plan compiled by residents designed to wean the town away from a reliance on carbon fuels. Some transition towns are already beginning to implement the plan.

Other initiatives trialed in Totnes include planting nut trees to provide emergency food supplies and the setting up of locally-run energy and construction companies to increase self-reliance.

Just over a year ago the town also introduced its own currency — the Totnes pound. Accepted in 18 shops in the town and borrowing its design from an 1810 local banknote, Hopkins believes it is a sign of things to come.

“Historically, when economies run into trouble, local currencies proliferate. In Argentina when the economy collapsed a few years ago, they appeared all over the country.

“They are inevitable because we will need currencies that are locally loyal, that make more things happen before they leave the economy than (pound) sterling does.”

To some this return to localism might sound like a step back.

Although Hopkins acknowledges drawing inspiration from the past — part of the transition process involves consulting with older members of the community to find out what life was like when people were more self-reliant — he insists he’s not being regressive, only realistic.

“The transition approach is not about convincing anyone to give up anything. It is about saying that many of the things we increasingly take for granted will become steadily more expensive and less and less dependable.

“We are entering a world where there will be a lot less energy available, and this will affect all aspects of our lives, and we need to start planning creatively now.”

This story was first published on on 2 May, 2008

failure of kenya’s rains puts 2.5m at risk of famine

(NORTHERN KENYA) Nomadic farmers in the arid wastelands of northern Kenya are dying with their cattle, as charities warn a famine on the scale of Niger is threatening the region.

So far, scores of people, mainly children, have died and the UN has warned that 2.5 million people are at risk of starvation because seasonal rains failed for the second time in a year. The Kenyan government has declared a national disaster and called for 11 billion Kenyan shillings, about £90m, to be jointly raised by Kenya and the international community.

In the worst-hit north-eastern region close to the Somali border, many pastoral farmers have lost their entire livestock because rains expected in April and then October failed to arrive.

Local media has reported nearly 50 fatalities but it is feared the toll may be many times higher since most deaths are likely to have gone unrecorded because of the Muslim practice of burying the dead on the same day of death.

Relief efforts have intensified, with the Government sending the army to distribute supplies and the Kenyan Red Cross initiating a programme to buy cattle from destitute farmers.

The scale of the crisis has shocked aid agencies in one of Africa’s more stable and affluent countries.

Oxfam’s humanitarian programmes co-coordinator for Kenya, Josie Buxton, said the current level of aid had to at least double.

She said: “At the moment, it looks extremely serious and there is a very real risk that we could have a Niger-type scenario on our hands.”

In the north-eastern district of Wajir, the village of Qu’laley lies in dusty bushland, about 200 miles from the Somali border.

Scores of hungry families have been arriving every day from the bush in search of water and food aid.

The rotting corpses of cattle litter the area, scattered between the nomad’s makeshift straw huts.

Outside their huts, veiled women prepare a porridge made from maize to feed their remaining livestock, which lie around listlessly in the sun. Othowa Jimale-Ali stands over the simple grave of his baby daughter dug in the scorched earth and marked poignantly by a leafy branch – one of the few pieces of greenery found in this dusty land.

The six-month old, called Fatima, died three days ago from chronic diarrhoea almost certainly caused by a weakening of her immune system because of malnutrition after her mother was unable to breastfeed.

Othowa, 50, said: “I’ve never known it like this, all the land is dry and there is nowhere to take our cattle. I have lost 50 cows now. It is the will of God and we must trust he will bring us rain.”

Within Kenya, blame for the crisis has been levelled at the long-term policy of mass deforestation, which has turned arable farmland to arid desert.

Kenyan Nobel prizewinner, Wangari Maathai, said major deforestation, started by the British during colonial rule and continued legally and illegally after independence, had reduced indigenous forest cover to just 1.7 per cent.

“The tragedies this country are facing today such as drought, famine and poverty have been exacerbated by the gradual degradation of our environment – including indigenous forests,” the Ms Maathai said.

Ms Maathai, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her devotion to Africa’s forests, said Kenya needed at least 10 per cent of its land mass under forest cover to safeguard agriculture, health and water supplies.

Medical superintendent Dr Eliud Aluvaala said that, despite fact-finding visits from government officials and the UN, the hospital had yet to receive any help.

He said: “It’s no good sending fact-finding missions – that won’t feed the children who are starving.”

Ms Buxton also criticised the response to the crisis. She said: “This is something that is happening time and again in Africa. A humanitarian crisis unfolds that we can see coming a long way off and yet despite warnings, nothing is done until it is too late.”

First published in London’s The Independent newspaper on 13 January, 2006