Frog and Spider are Friends

Unknown photographer: tarantula spider on a person's hand. Ray Roberts Lake State Park, Johnson Branch Unit, Texas. (November 3, 2013)
Tarantula at Ray Roberts Lake State Park, Texas. (November 3, 2013)

I’ve decided to list this post in the “Science News” category, although it doesn’t feature a current news item.

That’s because some of the tarantula-and-frog research has been news, and current spiders-have-pet-frogs videos remind me of human interest stories, back when print-format newspapers were more common.

It’s been an interesting week.

That may, or may not, explain why this week’s post is a mix of science and creature features of days gone by:

Picking This Week’s Topic

Adrienne Fitzgerald's photo for National Park Service: a tarantula spider. (November 3, 2013)
A tarantula, photo by Adrienne Fitzgerald via NPS.

I’ve never had a pet tarantula, but I’ve known someone who did. That’s not why I was ‘spider-conscious’ this week.

An online chat with number one daughter wandered into an area bordering on odd critters and what I was going to write about.

She mentioned that some tarantulas protect frogs from predators, while the protected frogs keep smaller predators away from the spider’s eggs. We agreed that this sounded like the sort of thing I’d write about, and the conversation swerved off in another direction.

Some time — and several shifts in topic — later, she mentioned that, although she didn’t remember which species of tarantula it was, the tarantula’s egg-keeper was a dotted humming frog. Then our conversation continued in yet another direction.

We both enjoy something in the neighborhood of Autism Spectrum Disorder.

“Enjoy” may not be quite the right word. Looking at some ‘how to deal with those people’ advice, I think maybe not being diagnosed until I was in my mid-50s was a good thing, and that’s another topic.

Tarantula-frog cooperation sounded interesting, so that’s what I’ll be talking about: plus whatever else comes to mind.

Big Spider, Little Frog: Helping Each Other

Photo from 'Tiny Frogs and Giant Spiders: Best of Friends', Darren Naish, Scientific American Blogs (May 16, 2015)
A tarantula (Pamphobeteus genus) walking over a frog.

Tarantulas are big spiders, microhylids are small frogs. Odds are, you’ve heard of tarantulas, but didn’t know that microhylids are better known as narrow-mouthed frogs. Well, maybe not “better known”, more like “not entirely under the radar”.

Headline and photo from 'Tiny Frogs and Giant Spiders: Best of Friends', Darren Naish, Scientific American Blogs (May 16, 2015)
“Tiny Frogs and Giant Spiders: Best of Friends”, Darren Naish, Scientific American Blogs (May 16, 2015)

Darren Naish’s “Tiny Frogs and Giant Spiders: Best of Friends” post, and a 1989 research paper with a Brobdingnagian title were among the first — and the few — ‘tarantula and frog’ resources I found this week.

Observations on a Commensal Relationship of the Microhylid Frog Chiasmocleis ventrimaculata and the Burrowing Theraphosid Spider Xenesthis immanis in Southeastern Peru
Reginald B. Cocroft, Keith Hambler, Biotropica (1989)

“A commensal relationship of Chiasmocleis ventrimaculata Xenesthis immanis was studied over a 3-mo [!] period at the Tambopata Reserved Zone, Peru….”

Resources I could use, that is.

Getting desperate for pictures, I checked out YouTube’s selection of ‘spider and frog’ videos. Some had a ‘tarantulas keep frogs as pets’ theme, others — the point is, none were the sort of valid and verifiable thing I was looking for.

And I found better photos elsewhere.

Naish said that Crocraft & Hambler’s 1989 paper was one of the first in which serious researchers admitted that they’d spent time watching big spiders and little frogs.1

I’d say more about C. & H.’s research, but it’s on a resource that protects erudite missives from prying eyes such as mine. If I was a sure-fire accredited academic, or affiliated with a proper institution — but I’m not.

So I looked at the paper’s first page, noted that C. & H. were following good research protocols, and that was about it.

From what I’ve found — or, rather, haven’t found — I figure Naish is right. Even now, there’s a noteworthy lack of journal-level published research on the topic. Or maybe I wasn’t looking in the right places, and that’s yet another topic.

Names, Senses and (Maybe) Mutualism

HTO's photo: a tarantula's eye region (Costa Rican Tiger Rump (Davus fasciatus)). (May 25, 2014)
A tarantula’s eyes. (Costa Rican Tiger Rump (Davus fasciatus)). (May 25, 2014)

At any rate, I learned that the dotted humming frog is Chiasmocleis ventrimaculata.

Tarantulas are Theraphosids. Except for the tarantulas in Europe: that sort are also called wolf spiders. Theraphosids are a family of spiders: “family” in the taxonomic sense: a rank between order and genus.

Theraphosids are Theraphosidae, by the way: a tomayto, tomahto distinction.

I’m pretty sure that all Theraphosids are tarantulas. However, I ran into a fair number of dicey and ‘we need more citations for verification’ resources. So maybe some of the 1,041 species in 156 genera of Theraphosids aren’t tarantulas.

Anyway, Xenesthis immanis (Colombian lesser black tarantula) (allegedly) eats birds: hence their “bird spider” reputation. This spider protects dotted humming frogs while the frogs protect the spider’s eggs.

Odds are, these bird spiders do the same with Hamptophryne boliviana. H. b. is the Bolivian bleating frog or Amazon sheep frog when it’s at home.

I gather that the tarantulas use their sense of smell to identify the frog as an assistant, not an entree.

That makes sense, since their senses of smell and touch are better than their vision.

But tarantulas that live in trees apparently have better vision than their ground dwelling counterparts. Which, again, makes sense.

I’m guessing that some tarantulas eat frogs, but haven’t confirmed it. And, according to the Chicago Herpetological Society, some frogs eat tarantulas.

Cocroft and Hambler’s 1989 paper called the tarantula-frog relationship “commensal”, where one species benefits while the other doesn’t.

Given that it’s looking like the frog gets a bodyguard while the spider gets an egg-protector, I’m guessing that we’re looking at mutualism. That’s where two species interact, and both benefit.2

Tarantula Research

I got the impression that most tarantula research is fairly recent: picking up after that 1989 paper. Maybe I missed results of earlier studies. Or maybe they haven’t been digitized yet.

On the other hand, maybe it took 34 years for herpetologists to get over Jack Arnold’s 1955 cinematic feature, “Tarantula!”


Movie poster: 'Tarantula'. produced by William Alland, producer; Jack Arnold, director; starring John Agar, Leo G. Carroll, Mara Corday. Universal Pictures. (1955)
“More terrifying … a creeping crawling monster whose towering fury no one can escape!” (1955)

Although Universal Pictures’ “Tarantula!” (1955) came out between “Them!” (1954) and “Beginning of the End” (1957), this creature feature’s featured creature isn’t a giant atomic rampaging arthropod.

Arthropod, yes. Giant, yes. Atomic, no.

Well, not quite.

Seems that a mad scientist benevolent professor, seeking to end world hunger, used something radioactive to create a magic growth elixir artificial super-nutrient.

Then two chaps working with the professor, a colleague and an assistant, decide that trying the super-nutrient on themselves was a dandy idea. Result: two dead bodies, an incinerated lab and a broken tarantula tank.3

Now, I can see growing oversize rabbits, white rats, and hamsters. Those are critters that aren’t all that different from contemporary livestock. But a tarantula? Yes, we can eat them: but I’m guessing that they’re not on most folks’ regular diet.

Where was I? Monster movies. Giant atomic grasshoppers — That’s “Beginning of the End”, a — remarkable film, and I’ll leave it at that.

“…But the worst one it seems, haunting all of my dreams
Was the cockroach that ate Cincinnati!…”
(“The Cockroach that Ate Cincinnati“, Rose and the Arrangement (1973) via LyricsLrc)

“Vox Populi…” One Phrase, Two or more Viewpoints

Studio Foglio's Mr. Squibbs, used w/o permission.I haven’t confirmed this, but I’m pretty sure that hormones, growth and otherwise, were scary new scientific stuff in the 1950s; and had been for decades.

And, being relatively new knowledge, were on at least a few “tampering with things man was not supposed to know” lists.

Strange. I don’t recall hearing that line in the plethora of ‘mad scientist’ movies. Despite the things being weekday-afternoon-television staples during my youth.

And that’s yet again another topic.

And if that “are you satisfied…” panel from a Girl Genius short story looks familiar: it’s one of my favorite bits of nonsense, one I use last week.

As for how many folks have blind panic as their default response to new ideas: I like to think that a sizable fraction of vox populi (voice of the people) aren’t quite that skittish. Then I see headlines in my news feed, and that’s still more topics.

That’s one reason I’m more inclined to agree with Alcuin of York and Fulton J. Sheen — and see the Whig take on vox populi4 as pleasantly optimistic. At best.

“Nec audiendi qui solent dicere, vox populi, vox Dei, quum tumultuositas vulgi semper insaniae proxima sit.”
(translation number one) — “And those people should not be listened to who keep saying the voice of the people is the voice of God, since the riotousness of the crowd is always very close to madness.”
(translation number two) — “We should not listen to those who like to affirm that the voice of the people is the voice of God, for the tumult of the masses is truly close to madness.”
(Alcuin of York; Works, Epistle 127 to Charlemagne (800) via Wikiquote)

“Right is right if nobody is right, and wrong is wrong if everybody is wrong.”
(Fulton J. Sheen‘ Life Is Worth Living (1951-1957), program 19. via Wikiquote)

Which doesn’t make me anti-democracy or convinced that my opinions are always right. And that’s — you guessed it — a whole mess of other topics.

Special Effects and Speculation

Frame from 'Tarantula'. Universal Pictures. (1955)
That is one big spider. “Tarantula!” (1955)

I can’t justify paying to see “Tarantula!” again, but might watch it if it was ‘free with this streaming service’.

The story line, as I remember it, was in the top 50% for creature features of the day; and the special effects were pretty good, maybe top 20%. I’d qualify that by saying “for 1955”, but my hat’s off to anyone who remembers that things cast shadows.

It’s not obvious in this frame from the film, but the uber-tarantula’s shadow placed the critter on the landscape.

The shot I particularly remember had footage of the (real) tarantula crawling down a hillside superimposed on live-action film. And the movie-monster tarantula’s shadow slid along the hills’ slope.

My guess is that the special-effects folks made a scale model of the real hill.

I also suspect, but can’t prove, that “Tarantula!” encouraged scientists to avoid risking their reputations by paying too much attention to those big, hairy, creepy-crawly spiders. Getting grant money for such research might have been problematic, too.

So: how come I’m devoting this Saturday’s post to frogs and spiders living in harmony?

Harmony, Understanding and Medieval Bestiaries

“When the moon is in the Seventh House
And Jupiter aligns with Mars
Then peace will guide the planets
And love will steer the stars…
“…Harmony and understanding
Sympathy and trust abounding
No more falsehoods or derisions
Golden living dreams of visions….”
(“Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In”; Medley from “Hair;” James Rado, Gerome Ragni; Galt MacDermot (1967))

I’ve said this before. Often. My teens and the Sixties overlap almost exactly. It was not a boring era. At all.

I was not the craziest of ‘those crazy kids’, but I was convinced that many reforms which got traction then were necessary. And in many cases long overdue.

More than a half-century later, I’m not happy at the way some changes in the status quo turned out. But I still think most were basically good ideas. That’s partly because I saw humanity as “us”, not “my clique and everyone else”.

That view was something I didn’t need to revise when I became a Catholic. I was also delighted to see a definition of “social justice” that made sense. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 360, 1928-1942)

And the Moral of this Spider is —

Aberdeen Bestiary's illustration of a phoenix, detail. (12th century)Medieval bestiaries — that’s a massive warren of rabbit holes I’ll leave for another time — were popular during Europe’s Middle Ages.

Popular among folks who could afford commissioning one, that is. I see them as high-end coffee table books.

That’s why I take pronouncements regarding how bestiaries reflect Christian theology with a grain or two of salt.

That said, I figure that assigning ethical values to critters was as much a part of the culture then as it is now. Comparing someone to a skunk wasn’t possible for Euro-based cultures until we ran into the critters, and I’m wandering off-topic.

Although spiders and frogs were known critters in medieval Europe, the only bestiary-related reference to frogs I found said they were garrulous.

Spiders apparently symbolized betrayal. Or industriousness. I found both assertions, and don’t have time to dig into how common either opinion was.

Taking an Aesop’s Fables approach, and a few minutes of Friday afternoon, I’ll suggest a double-header for entry in Brian of Sauk Centre’s Bestiary.

Brian of Sauk Centre. I like the sound of that. Or I could translate my name, my father’s, and my grandfather’s, and say that my name is Worthy son of Brave-Bear son of Strong-Ruler.5

But my ancestors stopped keeping their names up to date with the current language long ago, which is something else I won’t talk about today.

Now, finally, my not-entirely-arbitrary assigned significance of the Colombian lesser black tarantula and dotted humming frog cooperating.

Even as big spiders and little frogs find strength in harmony, so may we live in peace and unity: valuing our differences.

I don’t expect “spider and frog” rhetoric in next year’s political pandemonium. That’s something I am not looking forward to.

Now I’d better wrap this up with the usual links. Which aren’t as related as they might be:

1 Spiders and frogs. Here’s what I started with:

2 More than you may want to know about these critters:

3 They don’t make ’em (quite) like this any more:

4 ‘Voice of the people’, science, and an ongoing comic book series:

5 Books, fables and names:

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About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
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2 Responses to Frog and Spider are Friends

  1. Thinking about what to say after reading and while rereading this, I realize that I forgot about how we have a superhero named Spider-Man. X”D

Thanks for taking time to comment!