Why save a spider?

Wednesday 30th March 2016

A guest blog from author Jules Howard on saving a rare spider

Look at the image to the right of this text. This is the only photo that exists of a living horrid ground-weaver spider. This critically endangered spider really is that rare. I love this picture. It’s an image worthy of owning and framing. It is a thing of beauty. Horrid ground weaver (Nothophantes horridus) (C) J Walters

I fell in love with the horrid ground-weaver while researching my non-fiction book, Death on Earth. It’s a tiny spider -a single spider in a single genus- that lives on a few patchy sites in Plymouth, some of which are threatened with development. Fewer than ten spiders have ever been found. During research for my book, this pretty non-descript, uncharismatic spider taught me a lesson about wildlife conservation. 

It happened last summer. Buglife’s Andrew Whitehouse and Jo Gilvear kindly took me under their wing while I was trying to understand why this spider was worth trying to save. I was keen on understanding why this little spider mattered so much to Buglife and local people. After all, one can draw up an argument to save pandas or tigers (they provide ecosystem services and valuable ecotourism, for starters) but a spider? A tiny money spider that lives in cracks in boulders that no-one ever really sees? I found it really interesting to weigh up whether such a creature was actually worth giving a damn about.

At the time, Buglife’s supporters clearly thought it was worth saving. ‘Because it shouldn’t matter if it’s a panda, a clouded leopard or a tiny obscure spider, vulnerable endemic species are all equally important to the world,’ they said in its defence. According to the numerous comments on Buglife’s SAVE OUR SPIDER campaign page, the horrid ground-weaver needed saving ‘because every species deserves protection not just the cute and large mammals’. Was their view the correct one?

While Jo and Andrew showed me the various horrid ground-weaver sites that day last year, I learned that Andrew and Jo’s views on the spider were both steeped in science and realism, but they also mirrored the opinions of Buglife’s supporters. ‘Yes, the horrid ground-weaver isn’t going to blow people away like seeing a blue whale from a boat,’ Andrew had told me, wryly.  ‘But every species has an equal right to live on this planet, no matter which way you look at it.’ To Andrew, even money-spiders that live in cracks between limestone boulders that no-one, not even most spider experts, will ever see, deserve their place on Earth.  Jo had agreed. ‘How sad would it be if this thing could come and go without us ever knowing much about it, or adequately documenting it? How sad would it be for this spider to be this  …’ she had paused. ‘..this  … this fleeting thing.

The more time I spent with Andrew and Jo, the more their quite emotive arguments began to rub off on me. These animals were worth saving, not for ‘ecosystem services’ but because they had the gall to exist and we had happened, momentarily, to notice them. Worse, some of the local people actually quite liked them. And Andrew and Jo liked them too, a great deal it seemed.

As we finished our unsuccessful search for horrid ground-weavers and I was packing up to leave Andrew looked at me and said something that I will never forget.

‘It’s not going to change anyone’s life if this thing goes extinct. I agree with that statement.’ He paused. ‘Except for mine,’ he said. ‘My life would change if we let it become extinct, because I’ll feel sad that we let it go. I’d be gutted. I’d be gutted and frustrated. I would just be so sad.’

Look again at the photo of the horrid ground-weaver at the beginning of this article. Really take it in. We consider great works of art as having value but in reality they have no value without the humans that stare at them. And it’s the same with many animals, including this spider. The horrid ground-weaver has value because Andrew and Jo and thousands of Buglife supporters give it that value. The spider has no voice. It is our love for them that people (and politicians!) listen to. And that love and public support for invertebrates, so far, is helping this tiny little spider get the protection it deserves.

For me, before this moment with Andrew and Jo, I confess I had sometimes rolled my eyes at moral arguments to save species. I thought conservation was a science. But I was wrong. It doesn’t always have to be. Sometimes, it can be art too. 

Jules’s book Death on Earth has just been released by Bloomsbury Sigma. It features chapters on the horrid ground-weaver and the noble false widow spider, among a rich cast of invertebrates. Buy it here…