At ZooLab, our Rangers meet people of all ages with phobias of one or more of our creatures. Over the next few months, Jessica will examine some of the most common animal fears that we encounter to debunk the myths and help you see our extraordinary creatures in a whole new light.
How does fear relate to phobias?
Phobias are an intense reaction to fear, but what is fear and why do we experience it? Fear is one of our basic human emotions - it is programmed into our brain as a survival mechanism to help us sense and avoid danger; it works on instinct.
Have you heard of the brains ‘flight or fight’ response? In order to deal with perceived threats, the brain encourages us to run or fight environmental threats - it is a primal trait passed on by our ancient ancestors. Fear keeps us safe - for the most part. However, our fear receptors can trigger when a threat is nonexistent or greatly exaggerated and from here an irrational phobia is born.
This month's phobia: Arachnophobia
Arachnophobia is the irrational fear of spiders and/or other arachnids. If you suffer from this, you are not alone - arachnophobia is thought to be the most common animal phobia in the UK! Many people think these creatures are scary animals.
However, we can safely say that these creatures are fascinating and living in the UK you have very little to fear.
So what is it about arachnids? Are they really scary animals?
Is it a learned response? Adults that have a fear of spiders most often develop arachnophobia as young children - their parents or friends feared them and this reaction became a conditioned response. Often when we are on visits, we find that the younger participants are the keenest to meet our tarantulas as they don’t yet know that this is something to be ‘feared’.
Did you know? Despite having eight eyes, the majority of spiders have terrible eyesight!
Is it a primitive protection mechanism? Could we be born with this fear? An interesting study from the Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Germany suggests that this phobia may have an evolutionary origin. They believe that over time our ancestors adapted to have an in built survival instinct against our eight-legged friends and that this still exists in us today. Fantastic for life in countries where spiders are highly venomous but for modern life in the UK? Not so much.
Did you know? Spiders are fluffy! They ‘listen’ (sense the environment) with their hair.
Is it because they are intruders? Spiders are uninvited guests in our homes; they are secretive and can be found all over the house, often in basements and in the bath. However, spiders are useful creatures to have in the home as they feed on common indoor pests including flies and clothes moths.
Did you know? Spiders eat an estimated 400 -800 million tons of insects and inverts every year! Think how crowded your house would be without your friendly visitor.
Is it because they are venomous? Yes, all spiders are venomous! They use this to help them catch and eat their prey. A bite from a tarantula is similar to a bee or wasp sting and although venomous will not harm a human. Some spiders are highly venomous and few can be deadly; however, no spiders bite in the UK is considered of a high risk to humans.
Did you know? Tarantulas are typically incredibly shy - they are more likely to run away and hide than become aggressive or actively approach you!
Is it their reputation? Arachnophobia may develop from watching spiders in horror or sci-fi movies. Spiders have been portrayed as evil forces in pop culture for many years. In ‘Harry Potter’ Aragog is an Acromantula with a taste for human flesh and an ability to communicate with humans. Shelob in ‘Lord of the Rings’ attacks Frodo. It is all pretty scary stuff!
Movie myth: In James Bond’s ‘Dr No’ a tarantula emerges from beneath the bed sheets to feel its way across Sean Connery’s chest - this would not occur in reality as most spiders sense body heat and avoid contact. Tarantulas are actually used in movies due to their docile nature.
Food for thought?
Have you ever consider a world without spiders? They are essential for a healthy ecosystem, without them the world would be full of pests and disease. We have learned a lot from them - spider venom is used in medicine and engineers have been inspired by spider silk in the creation of military grade armour.
Tarantulas are important members of a ZooLab Ranger’s ‘animal team’; they are fascinating creatures that contribute to the learning outcomes of all animal handling sessions. Next time we visit, make sure and have a close look.