Gil Wizen and Mateus Pepinelli discuss the benefits and dangers of work
Gil Wizen, an entomologist and photographer, and ROM postdoctoral fellow Mateus Pepinelli were part of the Spider Lab at the museum during the run of the Spiders: fear and fascination exhibition. Here we talk to them about spider venom extraction, the worst bites and stings they’ve encountered during their careers, and their interest in these magnificent arachnids.
What does a spider wrangler do?
GW: The primary responsibilities are to look after the living arthropods in the museum. This includes feeding, watering, ensuring proper breeding conditions in enclosures for the spiders and keeping track of special events such as moulting, venom extraction, breeding and mortality. I am also responsible for maintaining live colonies of feeding insects: soldier flies, cockroaches and crickets. An important part of our role at the spider exhibition is the extraction (or milking) of venom from spiders and scorpions in front of the museum visitors. The poison is later sent to labs abroad to be used in research. Another aspect of my work is designing display cages to meet the requirements of spider rearing and to provide an adequate presentation to our visitors. I also work with the media department to make informative videos for the ROM visitors about our activities and about the biology of our animals.
How long have you been a spider wrangler?
Member of Parliament: Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been fascinated by the little creatures that run the world. I am an entomologist with over 17 years of experience in the ecology, taxonomy and evolution of aquatic insects. My research trajectory has provided me with advanced expertise in the taxonomy and systematics of various insects, with special emphasis on Diptera (the real flies). I have discovered and officially named 22 species of black flies and non-biting mosquitoes, and my current project focuses on fossil insects. Although serving as a wrangler is my first “official” spider job, I have long been interested in arachnids, observing and photographing them since I was a student in Brazil.
What is your favorite spider?
Member of Parliament: There are so many cool spiders among the 48,000 currently known to science, it’s hard to pick just one! But if you press it, I’d say the recently discovered Spid-a-boo (Jotus remus) jumping spin is at the top (or almost) at the top of my list. Despite their tiny size (as is typical of show jumpers, including the peacock spider), the behavior of males during mating is what makes this species special. They play peek-a-boo by waving their paddle-like leg to attract the females.
How many times have you been bitten by a spider? And what was the worst bite you’ve experienced?
GW: Countless times. This is part of the job, especially if you’re doing field work. I call these “accidents” because, except for parasites and blood-sucking arthropods, most stinging and biting arthropods aren’t out to get us. I was only stung and bitten when I stroked, startled or accidentally squeezed a spider. Surprisingly, the worst bite I’ve ever experienced was not from a spider. It was the bite of a silent killer from the Amazon region of Ecuador. Extremely sharp, pulsating pain that lasted for a few hours. We don’t know much about assassin venom, so I was also concerned that there would be clinical complications. But I’m still alive. The worst experience I had with an arachnid was a scorpion sting. I was looking for insects under rocks in the Judean Mountains of Israel, and when I knocked over a large rock, I was stung by a very small Compsobuthus scorpion. It wasn’t a dangerous strain, but the venom was strong enough to numb my hand for a few hours. Even after the pain faded, I could still feel discomfort for the next few days.
Member of Parliament: This is easy for someone who has been collecting bloodsucking insects for over 17 years. After I got a painless mosquito bite on my eyelid on a field trip, the region around the bite became so swollen that I couldn’t open my eye. I ended up in the hospital twice, trying to figure out the cause of the swelling, because it didn’t occur to me at first that a single mosquito bite could cause such damage. You should have seen the faces of people who saw me in that state – it was like watching a scene from a horror movie.
Why aren’t you afraid of spiders?
Member of Parliament: Despite the fact that all spiders are venomous, the vast majority do not have venom powerful enough to harm humans. More importantly, spiders will invariably try to avoid contact with you. As a result, the chance of being bitten is actually minimal. Simply put, there is no reason to be afraid of spiders. In fact, I’m fascinated with them and I’ll try to get close enough to snap a photo whenever I can.
GW: The real question is: why should I be afraid of spiders? I actually think they’re quite cute. Most spiders are shy and self-contained, and even when we encounter them, they usually prefer to avoid confrontation and leave. They are not out to get us, and they are beneficial animals that control insect populations (many of which are pests and leeches). I would be more afraid of bigger animals and even people as they can be unpredictable at times.