EEEEEEK!!

For many of you, the snake photo below will elicit a strong visceral response.  The spider photo below might do the same.  While it varies in intensity, humans seem to have an innate fear of both spiders and snakes.  New research now provides further support for the idea that fear of spiders and snakes is something we’re born with, not something we learn.  The European study showed that 6-month-old infants responded more strongly to images of spiders and snakes than of other creatures, even when those images were nearly identical in terms of color and brightness.  It’s a fascinating study to read, and is available for free by following this link.

This red-sided garter snake is about as harmless as you can get.

This big female wolf spider is impressive, but poses no threat to humans.

I handle both snakes and spiders fairly regularly, but I’ll still admit that my first reaction upon seeing one – especially when it’s a surprise – is to step backward.  Then, my logical brain kicks in and I step forward and pick up the cute little critter to look at it more closely.  I may be instinctively afraid of snakes and spiders, but it’s nice to know my brain has the ability to override that instinct – and I think most people have that same ability.  Dating back to my time working at a nature center in college, I’ve probably helped thousands of people overcome that initial fright response and touch, or even pick up, their first spider or snake.

My kids and I came across this bull snake along a gravel road.  We didn’t pick it up because it was acting aggressively, but we did spend a few minutes admiring it before it scooted off into the grass.

I think it’s important to help people understand that most snakes and spiders are harmless, and that even those few that could potentially pose a danger are not actively trying to attack them.  First, it might help save the lives of snakes and spiders living in and around those people’s houses.  That’s great, but probably won’t affect the fate of the world.  More importantly, however, I hope making people more comfortable with snakes and spiders might also help them feel more comfortable wandering out into prairies and other natural areas.

I’m not sure how many people avoid exploring tall grassy places out of fear, but I’ve definitely met people who fall into that category.  It’s hard enough to convince people that prairies are worth visiting without also having to convince them they won’t be ambushed by a vicious snake or spider.  I take every opportunity to reassure people that our prairies are safe, and try to prove it by going out of my way to catch and admire the snakes and spiders we see while hiking around.  Among my prairie conservation outreach strategies, demonstrating the harmlessness of snakes and spiders is surely not the most impactful, but I figure it doesn’t hurt.  If nothing else, people tend to care more about places they’ve visited, so anything we can to do encourage more visits to prairies seems worthwhile.

It would be interesting to know what percentage of people across the world would find this photo to be beautiful versus creepy (or both?).

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About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.
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17 Responses to EEEEEEK!!

  1. James C. Trager says:

    Thanks you SO-O-O much for this.
    (That’s all.)

  2. Lori says:

    We’re all in this together, the more understanding humans have of the other creatures we share space with the better off we all are. Great article and photos. On behalf of snakes and spiders everywhere, THANK YOU!
    (last photo is beautiful!)

  3. Pat says:

    Most of these critters try to stay out of sight. If I do come across one I just try to show a little respect and move on. Unless I think it’s okay to stop a while. They are so fascinating to watch.

  4. Morgan Ekhoff says:

    Chris, this photo is very beautiful. I would have it printed out and framed if I could.

  5. Ellen Rathbone says:

    Quite a number of years ago I was doing some research on snakes and came across a piece that was written, I think, by EO Wilson which cited research that suggested that the fear of snakes harkens back to our primitive ancestors, who had to fear snakes. It went on to say that people with developmental disabilities have more primitive brains (and that is not meant in any derogatory sense) and therefore tend to retain that fear. This was highly relevant when I worked at a zoo, and we would have groups from group homes come out. It was terrible to see the group’s staff force the clients into the reptile house “because it was funny to see how scared they were.” Those poor people were terrified of the snakes, but their caretakers thought it was funny.

    • I’m horrified to read this. What sort of people are these staff? How do they get in the position they’re in? The people needing help and supervision are the staff – that behaviour is inhuman!

  6. kocart says:

    I think it falls in the beauty category. But I thought a picture of a nocturnal orb-weaving spider munching on a cicada was super neat–maybe my taste in pictures is a little creepy! I love your blog and this is a good reminder to treat these animals with respect, not fear.

  7. Joanne says:

    The thing about spiders is they seem to appear when least expected — and yes, snakes too.

  8. Jane Papsdorf says:

    I also worked at a nature center. We had visitors touch the snake, but so mAny had no desire to do so. When questioning visitors, spiders were more feared than snakes

  9. brucemohn says:

    I know of two studies that showed that fear of snakes is learned. In one study, a young child was allowed to handle snakes and showed no fear of them until his mother turned up and screamed. He was then afraid of snakes! My niece had no fear of snakes when she was very young, but somewhere along the line someone changed her mind and they went from being beautiful things that she liked to interact with to “slimy”.

  10. Sylvia says:

    Stunning! Thanks so much for the exquisite photographs of both the snakes and spiders: the transmuters and weavers. I love them…

  11. lcgreeny says:

    The wolf spider got me – but the last picture is beautiful – that little spider just hanging is space is lovely.

  12. Mara says:

    I’d put rats and roaches in that scary category too.

  13. That last photograph certainly matches the color scheme we associate with Halloween. The picture is a good example of minimalism.

  14. Chris Muldoon says:

    Since I was a kid, I’ve always had admiration, love, and compassion for the underdogs, or maybe I should say underlings. My favorites are spiders, snakes, and bats. You might not have too many bats out your way, but happy Halloween from them and the rest of us. Your pix are always great — the spider photo is magnificent!

  15. Susan kleiman says:

    Agree 100% with all of this, Chris. I too take the opportunity to help others get comfortable and respectful of our creepy fellow passengers on Earth.

  16. Pat Halderman says:

    Beautiful photos of beautiful fellow creatures! I have a love of the Wolf Spider. How could anyone not love that face? Snakes are amazing and I see them on the trails starting their trek to their winter homes. They are amazing.
    Thank you for the photos!

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