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THE WEB/Sue Hubbell We must have . . . objects themselves to serve as thefactual basisfor knowledge , thefinal arbiter in matters ofcontested identity or meaning, the "ground truth" that underlies our understanding of the world we inhabit. —Anna K. Behrensmeyer, Acting Associate Director for Science, National Museum of Natural History, the Smithsonian DURING A STRETCH of Washington months I got to know, tolerably well, a big beautiful spider. She was blotchily orange and tan with darkly banded legs. Each day she spun a fine new round web somewhere in the garage, or occasionally on the back porch. She usually sat off the web, hidden against the ceiling or a protecting beam. Her eyesight was none too good, but when moths and flies blundered into her trap, she could feel the vibration of one of the web's guying threads and she would rush out onto it. She would eat the first of her catch and wrap the rest in silken winding sheets to keep for later. I always tried to avoid tearing her web and save her repair work, but she was a quick and efficient spinner. Jonathan Coddington, Curator of Spiders at the Smithsonian's Natural History Museum, told me that she ate each day's web and reprocessed the protein in it. Within twenty minutes of munching it down she was capable of recycling the silk. Her common name is barn spider. Her scientific one is Araneus cavaticus. Her genus, Araneus, includes a greater number of spider species than any other spider genus. It, and the name of her family, Araneidae (the spiders who spin orb-shaped webs), as well as that of her order, Araneae (all spiders), and even her class, Arachnida (spiders plus a lot of their kinfolk: ticks, daddy longlegs, scorpions and suchlike ), echo the name of Arachne, a Lydian princess. Arachne was such a skilled weaver that the goddess Athene, who fancied herself as the best at that art, grew jealous of her. The goddess, determined to find technical fault with Arachne's work, examined one of her tapestries, into which she had provocatively woven a story of the love affairs of the gods. But Athene could find no technical fault, none whatsoever, no matter how hard she tried. That made her even crosser and, furiously , she tore up the work (no one ever said the gods were nice). The princess, terrified at having aroused the fury of a goddess, hanged herself with a rope from a rafter. Athene, still irritated and not sufficiently 76 · The Missouri Review satisfied with the mere death of an irreverent rival, turned her into the animal she hated most of all, the spider, and transformed her rope into a cobweb. As spiders go, A. cavaticus is famous. She is the heroine of E.B. White's book Charlotte's Web, in which she saves the life of Wilbur the pig by writing messages in her web. I never did see TERRIFIC embroidered in the garage, but for someone like Jon Coddington, the barn spider's web does have messages. Jon is a specialist in spider taxonomy and behavior. Today's taxonomists aren't just in the business of assigning names to newly discovered animals; instead they are folding into the classification scheme everything heritable known about a particular animal and its relationship to all other animals. They ponder zoological principles and ask questions. What constitutes spiderishness (order Araneae)? How does one family group of spiders differ from or resemble the others (families Araneidae and Theridiidae)? What is the evolutionary relationship of the groups of spiders that spin different kinds of webs (Charlotte and all the rest)? The pictorial representations that result from asking these questions are not simply a classification scheme but are more like a densely packed encyclopedia of current biological knowledge, subject to revision and editing as new discoveries are made, and readableby anyone with some understanding ofthe animals diagrammed. They are family trees that show which animals are "sister groups"; degrees of cousinship; who kept certain anatomical features or ways of doing things; who invented new ones. In asking these questions, Jon settled a long controversy about spider phylogeny, or evolutionary trend. Spiders spin a variety of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1548-9930
Print ISSN
0191-1961
Pages
pp. 76-88
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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