15-43 Segment 2: Scary Critters

 

Synopsis: Two of the scariest symbols of Halloween are spiders and bats. They have bad reputations for not just being creepy, but dangerous. We get the straight scoop in these creepy critters from two experts in the fields of entomology and bats, and hear how both of these creatures are not as scary as we think, but very beneficial members of the insect and animals worlds.

Host: Marty Peterson. Guests: Nancy Troyano is an entomologist and director of technical education and training for Rentokil North America; Merlin Tuttle is an ecologist, wildlife photographer, conservationist and author of the book, The Secret Lives of Bats: My adventures with the world’s most misunderstood mammals.

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Spiders and bats: Halloween scary, but should they be?

Marty Peterson: Two of the most enduring symbols of Halloween are spiders and bats. They’re in almost every gothic horror movie, scary television show and in books designed to terrify us. Although they might scare us, are they really that dangerous? We asked to experts about all the horror hype surrounding these two critters. Nancy Troyano is an entomologist and director of technical education and training for Rentokil North America. She says that, first of all, not every insect with a lot of legs is a spider…

Nancy Troyano: Spiders have eight legs, they have two body parts so they have a head and thorax combined called the cephalothorax and abdomen and they have six or eight eyes, they have fangs that have a venom in them to subdue their prey and kill them, and they also are able to produce silk.

Peterson: Venom? Isn’t that enough of a danger to run and hide from spiders?

Troyano: No, and that’s a great question, and a common misconception. So spiders are predacious and so that means that they consume other organisms, living organisms. In order to do that they have to envenomate them and then the venom kills them, so usually or at least it paralyzes them well enough for them to consume their prey. So they have to have that venom in order to feed themselves. That venom, though, is meant to subdue and kill their prey which is usually smaller than they are. So you’re talking, typically very small insects so that venom not usually toxic enough to harm a human. And, in fact, there’s about 41-thousand described spider species worldwide, and you’re talking less than one percent of spider species are actually what we would deem “medically significant” and they have a venom that can be toxic to humans.

Peterson: There are three types of spiders that are usually depicted on Halloween – the black widow, brown recluse and the tarantula. You don’t want to handle the black widow or the recluse since they produce venom that is harmful to humans, but Troyano says that the tarantula is a different story…

Troyano: Tarantulas are actually very interesting spiders. Most tarantulas are pretty docile and people keep them as pets – you find them in pet stores. Tarantulas are like any other spider so they are predacious but usually it’s on organisms that are smaller than them. And what’s cool about tarantulas is that they have little hairs all over their bodies and when a prey comes along and it’s about the right size, they’ll get the right amount of vibrations in those hairs and that will signal them to come out of their hiding area and to grab their prey. So if a human walks by that’s way too many vibrations on their little hairs, and typically they’re going to stay put.

Peterson: How did the spider ever end up as a symbol of Halloween? Troyano says, that like most of the holiday’s favorite figures it’s a mixture of folklore, fear and fall. First, she says that in medieval times, spiders were thought of as the companions of witches, like the black cat. Second, fear of spiders is common in our country. Finally, the fall season is when spiders make their most dramatic entrances into our habitats…

Troyano: In many parts of the country, in temperate zones you’ve got the fall weather and spiders happen to be very big and apparent in the fall time because a lot of spiders will emerge from their egg sacs in the spring, and so they’ve been feeding for many months now and by the time October comes around. So they’re larger in size, they’re spinning large webs, they’re out looking for mates. They have to mate and lay eggs. A lot of times the first frost will kill these spiders so their out and they’re more visible to you. And also the foliage is now coming off of all of the vegetation outside so things are a lot more visible, spiders and their webs are a lot more visible to people in the fall. So spiders are just a hot topic in the fall. People will always say, “Oh, wow, you know the spiders are so big this time of year.” And it ‘s true, a lot of times they are.

Peterson: Spiders are not just here to scare us. Troyano says they are a very important part of the ecosystem, and actually do much more good for humans than they do harm…

Troyano: The spider’s main niche in the ecosystem is to be an important part of the food chain. So many spiders will feed on insects. And, in fact, they’re really the ones that help to keep a lot of insect species in check. They’ll feed on a lot of insect pest species. So they really keep insect populations in check. So they feed on insects and they’re also an important food source for other organisms. So reptiles, amphibians, birds, a lot of them depend on spiders largely for their diet.

Peterson: If you have spiders in your basement, what should you do about them? Troyano says she just leaves them alone if they’re not intruding on her living space. Otherwise you can step on them and take down their webs, or carefully move them outside or, if they’re a real problem, call a pest control company to take care of them. She does caution listeners to not pick them up and carry them around. Even though most of the spiders in this country are harmless to humans, some have a bite that can cause the same type of health complications as a bee sting in some people.

Peterson: Our next Halloween critter is the bat. It’s long been celebrated as a symbol of the holiday, and large numbers are often show swarming out of a cave or bell tower in films and television shows. Our bat expert has been handling and studying these animals since he was a teenager. Merlin Tuttle is an ecologist, wildlife photographer, conservationist and author of the book, The Secret Lives of Bats: My adventures with the world’s most misunderstood mammals. He says he’s trying to bust the myths surrounding these fascinating creatures, including the idea that they’re just mice with wings…

Merlin Tuttle: Absolutely not. They’re incredibly sophisticated animals that more closely resemble humans in many ways. For example, not much more than a hundred years ago the average lifespan in Britain was about 40 years. There are bats that have been found 41 years old. A 41-year-old bat is like a hundred-year-old human, and just imagine that bat still has to have excellent hearing, still has to have the kind of coordination and movement that you’d have to have to run an obstacle course at 100 years old, and he’s still doing it in 40-some years old. And not only are they the world’s longest-lived mammals for their size, but it’s recently been discovered that even the small, insectivorous bats have highly sophisticated social systems that have been said to be strikingly similar to those of higher primates and dolphins.

Peterson: Tuttle says that bats are found all around the world, and come in a wide variety of sizes and shapes…

Tuttle: There are more than 1300 species and they range from giant flying foxes with six-foot wing spans, down to tiny little bumble bee bats often referred to as the world’s smallest mammals that weigh about a third less than a U.S. penny.

Peterson: Tuttle says that people are afraid of them because they don’t understand them, and because of the media hype when a rabid bat is found in a community. He says that once you know about bats and their habits, the fear can melt away the way it did in Austen, Texas…

Tuttle: We have a million and a half bats living under one bridge in the center of town. When they arrived, health officials warned that they were rabid and would attack people, they’re dangerous, people panicked, made news headlines around the country that hundreds of rabid bats are invading and attacking the citizens of Austen. Every time a bat chased a mosquito near somebody, they thought they were being attacked, but we gradually educated people to understand bats, and simply not to pick up a sick one if they found it on the ground. And 35 years later, the people of Austen love their bats. Our bats eat approximately 15 tons of insects every night, mostly crop and yard pests. They attract thousands and thousands of tourists in a single night, they bring in 12-million or more tourist dollars every summer and in 35 years, despite all those early suppositions that they were going to be dangerous and harm people, we’re still waiting for the first person to be hurt by a bat.

Peterson: If there’s any bat that says Halloween it’s the vampire bat. Tuttle says that these poor animals have been misunderstood ever since Columbus landed in the new world…

Tuttle: His sailors learned about vampire bats but nobody knew which bats they were. And so when collections of bats were brought back to European museums, it was the ones that had the longest teeth that always got described as vampires. And it turned out that these bats with the longer canines were fruit-eating bats that were using them to rip into hard husks on fruit. And people went by probably a hundred years describing fruit bats as vampire bats and the actual vampire bats weren’t discovered to be vampire bats until relatively late in the game.

Peterson: Bats don’t usually attack humans, though they might go after an insect that’s close by and look like they’re after you. He says they’re sociable, smart and, as he found out, trainable…

Tuttle: What you wouldn’t believe is that even the tiniest bats I can train them to come to my hand on call. I’ve trained bats to do things that I’m told that primate behaviorists have been unable to train chimpanzees to do. Like go to a place where I point on command. Instead of coming to me when I make a call and point, they go where I point.

Peterson: As he said, bats are a big contributor to the ecosystem by eating insects in huge numbers. He adds that there are no more rabid bats out there than any other rabid animal, and overall these mammals aren’t dangerous or “scary” once you understand them. Tuttle is living proof that if you know what you’re doing with bats, you have nothing to fear…

Tuttle: I have studied bats for 55 years on every continent where they occur; I’ve spent hundreds, probably thousands of hours down in caves surrounded by millions of bats, and I’ve never been attacked by a bat, I’ve never been harmed by a bat, I’ve never been protected against any of these so-called emerging diseases that people keep getting warned about that may come from bats – it’s pure speculation. I’ve never been protected against any of those things, and I’m still quite alive and healthy and not even worried. I have been vaccinated against rabies like any veterinarian is — those who handle animals regularly and sometimes they’re bit in self-defense, we get vaccinated against rabies – but even a rabid bat is almost never a threat to anybody if you don’t pick up a sick bat, let it bite you and then not report the fact that you got bit.

Peterson: Read about Merlin Tuttle’s adventures with bats in his book, the secret lives of bats, available at stores and online. You can also visit him on his website at MerlinTuttle.com. For information on all kinds of creepy crawlers and how to control them, Nancy Troyano suggests you log onto Rentokil.com. To find out more about all of our guests, log onto our site at Viewpointsonline.net. You can find archives of past programs there and on iTunes and Stitcher. Our show is written and produced by Pat Reuter. Our production directors are Sean Waldron, Reed Pence and Nick Hofstra. I’m Marty Peterson.

 

 

 

 

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