British politics is quite complicated.
Wait a minute, I hear you say, in an anguished tone. I came here to learn and be greatly unsettled by animals on an irregularly updated blog, hypothetical you continues. I get all of my political information from a couple of websites which happen to coincide with my prior views and so continually reinforce my own narrow worldview whilst rendering me increasingly incapable of understanding in a charitable manner the thoughts of others beyond my own echo chamber, you say, surprising me with your clarity of self reflection. I do not come to this blog to read about whatever unhinged beliefs you have adopted this week, you then shout, at the top of your lungs, causing me to retract my previous charitable impression of the ‘you’ in question.
And I quite understand. But the point I was trying to make, before the probably horribly inaccurate version of you I had created in my head started shouting, is that British Politics now contains spiders, and for the avoidance of doubt, I’m not being metaphorical. I am talking about a very literal spider which a literal senior government official literally keeps in his literal office.
The literal spider is Cronus, and his owner is the Government Chief Whip Gavin Williamson, whose job it is to make sure that Conservative MP’s vote the way the Prime Minister wants, a job which presumably becomes quite a bit easier once Mr Williamson locks the door and lets the tarantula out of his cage. The Chief Whip is quoted as saying that: “…in the Whip’s office we have a proper pet. I’ve had Cronus since he was a spider-ling, so I have a very paternal sort of approach. It’s very much the same sort of love and care that I give to my spider as I give to all MPs.”
Which sounds nice enough, except that he went onto say, presumably as his media liason team frantically starting mouthing ‘no’ at him, “Cronus [It is at this point we should probably mention that Cronus, in Greek mythology, overthrew his father after castrating him and throwing him into the sea, before marrying his sister and eating the resulting children, before being in turn overthrown by Zeus, his latest child – Ed.] is a perfect example of an incredibly clean, ruthless killer… absolutely fascinating to rear.” . Which is not exactly the sort of thing an elected politician usually says, unless they are being unrecorded and are about to drop the hero down a trapdoor to a grisly death after uncovering some sort of monstrous conspiracy.
[As a side-note, isn’t ‘Chief Whip’ a needlessly ominous title? It is like calling a politician Minister for Darkness, or Chairman of the Select Committee of the Howl Eternal, or Shadow Chancellor. Oh, that one’s a real title too. Ed.]
Now, what species Cronus is has not been exactly specified – from his pictures he looks like a Mexican Redknee Tarantula, Brachypelma smithi, a popular pet tarantula – but it is far from the most fearsome tarantula. Although no Tarantula can kill, although most have very painful bites, with some causing weeks of pain, swelling, and in some cases hallucinations, the tarantula most people know about, and mostly are desperate to avoid, is the Goliath Bird Eating Spider, Theraphosa blondi. Unless you’re in charge of maintaining the unity of your political party, in which case, well, this could well be the eight legged solution to at least some of your problems.
The Goliath Bird Eating Spider is popularly called the largest spider on Earth, but the truth is a bit more complicated. It weighs in at 175 grams, making it the heaviest, and has a body up to 11.9 cm long, with its legspan reaching nearly 30 cm. The Giant Huntman Spider (Heteropoda maxima), however, recently discovered in 2001, has a slightly larger legspan, but is a lot more slightly built. Scientists are yet to determine which is objectively worse to find crawling up your trembling, naked body late at night. A good way to visualise the size of this spider is to imagine a spider that could quite easily cover most of your face, if that helps at all.
You could also imagine a spider which is big enough that you can hear its footsteps, or, in the words of one biologist, “I could clearly hear its hard feet hitting the ground and dry leaves crumbling under its weight.. the Goliath birdeater is probably the only spider in the world that makes noise as it walks. Its feet have hardened tips and claws that produce a very distinct, clicking sound, not unlike that of a horse’s hooves hitting the ground” At first, he said he mistook it for a small to medium size rodent.
Its size is probably down to its reduced metabolic rate, which in turn means a lower demand for oxygen. This is because, especially for arthropods, the bigger you are, the harder it is to get oxygen to every cell in your body.
[Its (one reason) why a human sized spider thankfully couldn’t be; its respiratory system is based around ‘book lungs’ which are basically ‘pages’ of tissue, inside the body, where oxygen is taken up and carbon dioxide released. Scaled up to man-sized, a spider’s circulatory system probably couldn’t provide enough oxygen to tissues in the body -Ed.]
So one limiting factor on spider size is the oxygen demand; if you are bigger, you need more oxygen (since you have more cells in your body), and as seen above getting more oxygen becomes increasingly more difficult the bigger you get (because of the spider’s circulatory system). Because of its lower metabolic rate, the spider needs less oxygen than it otherwise would, and so the Bird Eating Spider can increase in size.
Anyway, the Goliath Bird Eating Spider, or, as we will call it from now on, ‘Lord of All Spiders’, lives in the rainforests of northern South America, usually in swampy or marshy areas, and often hides away in a burrow during the day, because if the Lord of the Rings taught us anything other than not to overlook incredibly obvious solutions, it is that gigantic spiders like to live underground. The Lord of All Spiders is called ‘Bird Eating’ because it was originally observed devouring a honeybird. However, birds are not actually a common component of its diet, and it will happily eat almost anything it can catch and bite, such as small reptiles, small mammals, amphibians, earthworms, and larger insects. Rather than spin intricate webs, hide in a cleverly constructed ‘trapdoor’, or do as the pirate spiders do and pretend to be a caught prey animal, then ambush another spider which comes to investigate, the Lord of All Spiders simply chases its prey and bites it, with fangs up to one inch in length, capable of piercing a mouse’s skull or an egg shell (yes, they feed on bird eggs too). Although this bite is supposedly only as painful as a wasp sting and not really harmful to most humans, it is enough to kill smaller animals, which are then dragged back to the burrow of the Lord of All Spiders for leisurely consumption. The venom of the Lord of All Spiders actually includes digestive juices, which partially liquefies the prey, which is then sucked up.
Females live quite a big longer (potentially up to three decades, as opposed to 3-6 years) than males. It seems, after reading guidance for keeping these animals in captivity, that males actually have a shorter lifespan, often dying soon after their final moult. Of course, another reason could be that spiders often practise sexual cannibalism, in which the female eats, or attempts to eat, the male either soon after, or during, mating (possibly a strategy on the male’s part; by providing the female with a meal, even if it is him, then his progeny have a better chance of surviving and mating themselves)
Like many tarantulas, the Lord of All Spiders has what are called ‘urticating setea’, which are basically bristles that can be extremely irritating if touched – and not only if touched. If the Lord of All Spiders feels threatened, it uses its legs to flicks these hairs from its abdomen at you. Although these mostly cause irritation and stinging to us, to a smaller animal they could prove fatal if inhaled, as they’d cause swelling inside the throat. Different tarantulas have different types of ultricating hairs. Fittingly, the Lord of All Spiders is thought to be perhaps the most irritating of all tarantulas in this regard. Firstly, it is covered with ‘Type III Setea” which, due to their morphology and their sheer length, are probably the most harmful to humans and other mammals. Secondly, its sheer size means it can support more setea. These setea are also used by the Lord of All Spiders to line its silk lined burrows, and discourage any intruders. Thus, like many tarantulas, it is probably a good idea to wear glasses if handling the Lord of All Spiders, to avoid getting these ‘hairs’ in your eyes, which seems to be an occupation hazard when keeping tarantulas. Additionally, if you wish to tempt fate even more and eat it (apparently, it tastes somewhat like shrimp) make sure you use a blowtorch to remove the hairs. Several diners in America, when eating another type of tarantula, forgot to do this and suffered irritation in their throats afterwards.
So, there you have it. Another reason to politely decline that cruise down the Amazon, a recipe tip should you need to eat a tarantula, and a way to reunite your fractured Party and take your case to the electorate.