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  • Writer's pictureFrank DiGiovanni

Animals some fear

Updated: Sep 8, 2022

Yeah well, sorry but we have to do this. Confronting the things you fear gives them less power over you, so gather your strength and keep reading please. Here at the Science Museum of Long Island we are home to a variety of animals and so far, you’ve been introduced to Romeo the English Lop rabbit, Linus and Lucy our ferrets, Charlie the hedgehog but now we must confront some of our animal fears.


Please take a peek at Susan, Aphonopelma chalcodes, as she’s scientifically known. She is our Arizona blond tarantula. As you may already know or might be feeling, a fear of spiders is known as Arachnophobia and is typically listed as one of the number one thing that people are afraid of and for good reason. Looking like an alien with their eight eyes, eight legs and (depending on the species) up to a foot in diameter, armed (no pun intended) with fangs and powerful venom (also depending on the species), web spinning, this air breathing arthropod (animal with exoskeleton and jointed legs) looks terrifying and, it’s no wonder these diverse animals can make some of us go “AAAAAH!!!”


With over 48,000 known species, Susan fits in the family “Theraphosidea” or “hairy” spiders, which has roughly 1,000 species! The Arizona blond tarantula comes from the desert parts of- you guessed it- Arizona and parts of Mexico, New Mexico and California. In the wild or captive, these are predators, hunting for insects, centipedes, millipede and other spiders, using an ambush technique, where they sit motionless, waiting for an unsuspecting creature to walk by before pouncing and piercing its prey with its powerful fangs! (Some tarantula even eat small mammals and lizards!)

Susan, SMLI’s Arizona Blonde tarantula exhibiting "eyeshine" caused by the tapetum lucidum in her eyes. Image courtesy of author

Susan gets her name from the pale hairs on her carapace (the part of her body where her legs come from) giving her an almost-blond look, especially when you compare it to her abdomen, which is typically darker colored. However, the silk that Susan spins is not for the typical hanging web, rather she uses it to cover the entrance to her burrow, to trap prey, she even uses it to make her burrow stronger! The Arizona blond is a nocturnal hunter, and Susan loves to hunt for the live crickets she is given! Tarantulas have an incredible adaptation, among her spinnerets, legs and venom, the hair she has. When threatened, she can flick her “urticating hairs” towards her attacker causing pain and irritation. Thankfully we don’t handle Susan (with our hands) that often, so we give her no reason to feel as if she has to defend herself. You can even see that Susan has something called the Tapetum Lucidum. This adaptation gives her the “eyeshine” often seen in dogs’ and cats’ eyes when taking a flash photography. Even though spiders have eight eyes, their vision isn’t the best. The Tapetum Lucidum enhances their ability to see in the dark.


Said by experts to be a good “entry level” spider for those seeking to bring this amazing create into their home. Generally, they’re docile and easy to care for but should you get one, handling them is best left in the “rarely done” category and better left to the “look but don’t touch” category.


Now to the other, most commonly listed fear (of animals).

Snakes.


With a not-so-scary sounding name, Pretzel (and Casper) are examples of a Ball Python. Scientifically named Python regius, this non-venomous snake typically grows between three to five feet in length and can lives upwards of 50 years! And if you’re into owning a pet snake, the Ball python is the most popular breed of pet snake and another good “first time owner” snake due to their calm and somewhat shy nature. Pretzel is also a perfect example of how relaxed these animals can become when properly socialized. At the Manhasset al Fresco event, a young child accidentally "booped" her nose and Pretzel simply recoiled as if to say "Why did you do that?" Never tightening her grip on my arm or even hinting she was agitated by this young child touching her face, she remained very relaxed and calm. Ball Pythons are native to central and western African nations, and these snakes love the warm weather but require a place to bask in their enclosure- make sure it’s securely closed as they’re great escape artists and nobody really wants to accidentally run into a “lost” pet snake.


Pretzel being held in the author's hand at Manhasset al Fresco, September 2021.

You can see that Pretzel exhibits the typical coloration of black/ dark brown and light patches with a white underbelly (if you look carefully); this is called “countershading”. Imagine walking through the forests of central Africa, it’s kind of dark because of the canopy of trees, it would probably be very difficult to spot a dark colored snake, hiding in a dark spot. Because they are ambush predators, finding a dark spot to hide and wait for prey to come by is what she, and other Ball Pythons do EXTREMELY well! Similarly, if she’s hunting in a tree (which they’re known to do) and you look up, you might not see her because of that light underbelly. You can see here in this picture that Pretzel exhibits the classic coloration, and if you were to come across her in the woods, you might not even know she was there, or which side was her head! Also on her face and clearly visible in this picture are the thermal pits; these are the "holes" allow her to sense the heat given off by her prey!


Ball pythons get their name from a behavior when they are threatened. Slithering into a ball, this species will hide its head among its coils until it feels safe. In the wild, they can be somewhat territorial but in human care, they can, once they don’t think of you as a threat, almost seem to enjoy being held. (As someone who’s held her many times, I can attest to this fact.) They are also the smallest of the constrictors, which means that although they will bite their prey/food, they do not have venom. Rather, with a firm grip on their prey they squeeze their prey until they can no longer feel blood flow (and therefore no oxygen going through the animal), this leads to unconsciousness and death shortly thereafter. Like other snakes, Pretzel needs to eat, and she can easily eat food that’s larger than her head, doing this by unhinging her lower jaw. (You can feel the hinge in your jaw by putting your finger toward the back of your lower jaw, opening and closing your mouth. And unless something VERY bad happens, you’ll never be able to separate your lower jaw from your skull the way Pretzel and Casper can.) This ability means that while her head is about the size of my thumb, she can swallow something the same size as the widest part of her body! That’s sort of like you swallowing a softball, whole!! Now think about it, how many hours has it been since you last ate? I’d wager it’s been between 6-12 hours since you last nommed on something. Sweet Pretzel here will easily go three to four weeks in between meals!


Come on, admit it, snakes are a little cooler than you originally thought ;-)


Remember that if you and your family are considering a pet of any kind, to do your research. Find reputable breeders, talk to a veterinarian, or people who have experience with the type of animal you’re curious to bring into your life. Not all of the characteristics described here are seen by ALL animals of the species; like humans, each animal is a unique individual.

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