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article imageOp-Ed: Ever wonder why you're afraid of spiders? Evolution provides clue

By Megan Hamilton     Apr 7, 2015 in Science
San Jos - When you live in the tropics, the neighbors tend to invite themselves into your house. In my case, sometimes it's a two-toed sloth. Other times it's a beautiful morpho butterfly. And other times it's a large, hairy spider.
In Costa Rica, spiders come in small, medium, and Winnebago.
Over the years, I've learned to make friends with these quiet and generally harmless (if scary-looking) creatures. I have often wondered what triggers our primal fear; why are we so afraid of spiders?
It turns out that our evolution may play a big part in our fear of arachnids, new research suggests, according to The New Zealand Herald. During the earliest stages of our evolution, spiders posed great danger, and this means a fear of spiders may have become part of our DNA.
Early in our evolution, humans in Africa with keen vision and the ability to spot spiders outlived their less wary companions, The New Zealand Herald reports.
"A number of spider species with potent, vertebrate-specific venoms populated Africa long before hominoids...and have co-existed there for tens of millions of years," said Joshua New, of Columbia University in New York. "Humans were at perennial, unpredictable and significant risk of encountering highly venomous spiders in their ancestral environments."
He added:
"Even when not fatal, a black widow spider bite in the ancestral world could leave one incapacitated for days or even weeks, terribly exposed to dangers."
In the study, tests were conducted to see how quickly people could spot a spider when they were presented with a number of other images. New and his colleagues had 252 people view abstract images on a computer screen. The results showed that people easily picked out spiders in an image, even if the image was blurry or distorted, Bustle reports.
Other theories have also been introduced that may additionally explain why spiders give some of us the heebie-jeebies.
Jon May, a professor of Psychology at Plymouth University, noted that the creature's angular legs, dark colors, and unpredictable movements may be what puts the fear of spiders in humans.
"Spiders just tick all these boxes, and like any phobia, when it builds up in someone's mind they can become scared even seeing a picture," May said. "We like bright-colored butterflies and ladybirds, but spiders are dark colored with long angular legs - and the shape and color both have strong negative associations."
He added:
"We are also very sensitive to seeing things moving out of the corner of our eye and immediately notice it, and insects (spiders are arachnids, not insects) move quickly and unpredictably."
Direct experience with a spider may fuel and instill fear in some people, psychologists believe, and this is known as the "conditioning" view of arachnophobia, IFL Science reports.
To gain a better understanding of how this works, Graham Davey of City University in London conducted a study in 1991. He interviewed 118 undergraduate students about their spider-related fears. Around 75 percent of the people interviewed were either mildly or extremely afraid of spiders. Out of these numbers, most were women, and IFL Science notes that the gender bias associated with arachnophobia has been supported in later research.
Fear of spiders was also often all in the family, Davey found. People scared of the critters often reported having a family member with similar fears. The study wasn't able to separate genetic factors from environmental ones, though. The odd thing, however, is that Davey found that arachnophobia didn't result from specific "spider trauma," and this means there's no support for the view that conditioning causes fear, IFL Science reports.
A study at Emory University School of Medicine found, however, that this fear can be passed on through our genes. When studying mice, the researchers found that mice could, in fact, impart information about scary or anxiety-inducing experiences to later generations, Bustle reports.
My sister and I were quite likely influenced by my mom's arachnophobia. I remember watching mom gingerly goose-stepping around any unlucky spiders and smacking them with a newspaper or magazine. My sister is not particularly a murderer of spiders, but I suspect that if she saw some of the spiders that visit my house, I'd have to peel her off the ceiling. As for me, I used to be afraid of spiders, but I have a better understanding of their place in the world, and even find them fascinating and beautiful.
Spiders are found on all of the earth's continents, with the exception of Antarctica. While some species are terrestrial (meaning that they live on the ground), others are arboreal, preferring to live in trees. Spiders are highly adaptable and have been found everywhere--from tropical forests to freezing cold caves, Pawnation reports. A scant few spider species are social, but most are solitary and only interact with each other to fight or mate.
Worldwide, more than 37,000 species of spiders have been described, National Geographic reports.
On an individual level, one spider eats about 2,000 insects a year, and they are definitely valuable to have around the house and garden. Some spiders don't limit themselves to eating insects. Their prey can also consist of frogs, fish, lizards, snakes, and even birds, National Geographic reports.
This colorful spider is not Larinia jeskovi.

Even if you re afraid of spiders  you have to admit th...
This colorful spider is not Larinia jeskovi. Even if you're afraid of spiders, you have to admit this one is beautiful. We found this little guy in the rain forest near my house.
In turn, spiders are an important food source for birds, lizards, snakes, scorpions, and other spiders. Mantises and predatory wasps also hunt spiders, and these wasps specialize in catching and paralyzing spiders. The wasps then bury the spiders alive with a cargo of eggs, and the unwitting arachnid provides food for the young when they hatch.
I've seen this natural spectacle in my own house, having seen a gecko caught in a spider's web, and in turn, having seen a gecko catch a large spider. It's the law of the jungle and survival of the fittest all wrapped neatly together.
Certainly beats watching the Kardashians on television.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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