Up Close With The Metallic Tarantula

Metallic, tarantula, endangered
Image credit: Søren Rafn/ Creative Commons
The Metallic Tarantula has been a signpost for new research into nanotechnology. Is there more to be learned from spiders?

The closer you get to a spider, the more fascinating it appears. From afar, it’s easy to find them terrifying. But as you go up close, near enough to peek into their compound eyes, they’re just multi-legged creatures – understudied, unappreciated and a potpourri of scientific findings.

The Metallic Tarantula (Poecilotheria Metallica) is so rare, its locality is listed only as the Nandyal-Giddalur road in Andhra Pradesh. It was discovered in 1899, inside a timber pile in Gooty – from where it also got the name ‘Gooty tarantula’.  It would be more than a century before it was discovered again in the wild, in the Seshachalam hill ranges within Andhra Pradesh’s Chittoor and Kadappa districts. Its initial discovery in Gooty was likely an outcome of the timber trade – which continues to degrade its foresty home.

Finding it again took dedication and a lot of climbing trees and peeking into webs. But the effort paid off. By identifying its new limited range, researchers were able to get the spider classified as a Critically Endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). With less than 100 square kilometres of habitat today, it’s one of the rarest spiders on earth.

The moment the world caught sight of the Gooty tarantula’s incredible blue, demand grew for the spider as a pet. It’s now one of the most expensive arthropods in the international pet trade, going for between $150-400 depending on whether its a male or a female. They start out looking like plain brown spiders, but after a year of molting, develop the radiant blue tinge that makes them so striking. Pet keepers take care not to be bitten – as the venom, though not fatal, can leave symptoms of pain and headache for up to a week.

Captive breeding programmes keep the Gooty spider alive in the hands of enthusiasts, but back in India, they’re in trouble. They are notoriously elusive, and even the IUCN can’t estimate their numbers. But the combination of timber felling and illegal pet trade puts them at high risk.

That this trade is often in plain sight is indicative of the situation – spiders seldom receive the same level of attention and conservationist scrutiny as larger creatures. We don’t even know why they’re blue – only that it’s not exclusively for breeding purposes as the spiders can’t perceive colour that well. Perhaps it just looked too good to resist?

Metallic, Tarantula
Image Credit: Micha L. Rieser/ Creative Commons

It’s no ordinary blue either – these are structural colours, composed of particles so small they interfere with light. It’s not a colour man has been able to reproduce without iridescence – a phenomenon where the colours changes depending on which angle you view it from. Researchers from the University of Akron studied the Metallic Tarantula to figure out its secret – and the answer turns out to be nano-structures. What keeps the spider a constant shade are the minute layers of hair arranged in a flower-like structure on its body.

To replicate this effect, the researchers used a custom 3D printer to make their own version. It worked – and if they can scale up this technology, the toxic pigments industry could be replaced by this Nature-inspired version.

The study of spiders can pay off. And there’s good reason to keep the arthropods alive – without them, man faces the possibility of largescale famine, as spiders eat the pests that eat up our crops. Current pest-control efforts are ham-fisted, as by spraying fields with pesticides, we harm the spiders that hunt these pests as well. Spiders are Nature’s own balance against pests – and are always useful to have at home for the same reason.

Does that make you feel like spiders warrant further study? Biomimicry is increasing the possibilities for developing new materials that are inspired by Nature. Copying the spider could be the new big breakthrough in material manufacturing.

In the Indian Journal of Arachnology, Ganesh Vankhede writes on the many facets and applications of spider silk. It has a higher tensile strength than that of iron – four to five times, to be exact. Produced in sufficient quantities, this silk can replace the iron rods used in construction (creating earthquake proof buildings) or fabricate bulletproof jackets that are both lighter and stronger than Kevlar. Spider silk is also antibiotic and can reflect UV rays. Let’s not forget that the greatest invention of the twentieth century, the World Wide Web, is also a homage to the art of the spider’s weave.

Understudied, unappreciated and perhaps unknown – spiders have a lot more to teach us if we can but listen. In Buddhism, Indrajāla (meaning Indra’s net) is a term used to explain the interconnectiveness of all things. Modelled on the spider’s net, it refers also to how Nature creates its own balance. A successful conservation strategy needs to encompass all beings. We need to stop fearing the spider and start learning from it – and make sure the the fascinating creatures don’t disappear because of our apathy.


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