A mesmerizing look at nature's eight-legged wonders
From tarantulas to jumping spiders, these intimate portraits of arachnids show how unique, beautiful, and even charming they are.
Perched on a banana flower, this bromeliad spider (Cupiennius sp.) in La Maná, Ecuador, waits patiently for an unlucky pollinator to drop by. These arachnids are often confused with wandering spiders (Phoneutria spp.), which have some of the most potent venom on Earth.
“When people think about spiders, they think of something creepy,” says Javier Aznar, a Madrid-based biologist and photographer who has built up an impressive kaleidoscope of spider images, particularly from the rainforests of Ecuador, where he lived for three years. “But when you look closer, you will see an amazing world.” (Spider silk is one of the most versatile materials on Earth.)
Take the bold jumping spider (Phidippus audax), the charismatic arachnid staring you down just above. Aznar says these spiders, which can be found throughout North America, seemed “friendly,” and were not fearful of him. (Only about a dozen spider species are known to be harmful to people.) A few jumping spider species also have excellent color vision, so when they turn that puppy-dog gaze your way, they’re actually seeing you. (Do spiders dream? A new study suggests they do.)
Then there are the fascinating ant-mimicking crab spiders in the genus Aphantochilus, native to South America. Their broad, horned faces are strikingly similar to those of the ants they prey on, allowing them to sneak up on their meals without being noticed. As masters of disguise, the predators can be difficult to find, let alone photograph. In fact, Aznar has only seen them in Ecuador three or four times. (These spiders feed their leftovers to carnivorous plants.)
Photographing ogre-faced spiders in Ecuador, for instance, took him several years. Rather than weaving traditional webs, these big-eyed, long-legged arachnids create square nets of silk that they hold with their legs and swat at passing insects. (Ogre-faced spiders have great hearing—without ears.)
However, the animals are skittish and will tuck their snares away and hide if suddenly approached. To capture the behavior in all its glory, the photographer had to become a sit-and-wait predator himself, spending long periods silent and unmoving. Then, one night as an ogre-faced spider readied its attack, with a click and a flash, Aznar finally got his shot.
Jason Bittel is a science journalist and National Geographic Explorer. He is currently writing a book for National Geographic about North American wildlife.