Wrangling Live Spiders

Gil Wizen and Mateus Pepinelli discuss the perks and perils of the job

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 over their careers, and their interest in these magnificent arachnids.

What does a spider wrangler do?
The responsibilities are primarily taking care of the live arthropods at the museum. This includes feeding, watering, ensuring proper rearing conditions in enclosures for the spiders, and keeping records on special events like moulting, venom extraction, breeding, and mortality. In addition, I am responsible for maintaining live colonies of feeder insects: soldier flies, cockroaches, and crickets. A major component 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 venom is later sent to labs overseas to be used in research. Another aspect of my job is designing display cages to fit spiders’ rearing requirements as well as to provide adequate presentation for our visitors. I also work with the media department to produce informative videos for the ROM visitors about our activities and about the biology of our animals.

How long have you been a spider wrangler?
Since I was a kid, I have been fascinated by the little creatures that run the world. I am an entomologist with more than 17 years of experience working on the ecology, taxonomy, and evolution of aquatic insects. My research path has provided me with advanced expertise in the taxonomy and systematics of various insects, with special emphasis on Diptera (the true flies). I have discovered and formally named 22 species of black flies and non-biting midges, and my current project focuses on fossil insects. While serving as a wrangler is my first “official” spider job, I have long been interested in arachnids, and have observed and photographed them since I was an undergraduate student in Brazil.

What’s your favourite spider?
MP: There are so many cool spiders among the 48,000 currently known to science that it’s hard to choose only one! But if pressed, I would say that the recently discovered Spid-a-boo (Jotus remus) jumping spider is at (or near) the top of my list. Despite their minute size (as is typical of jumpers, including the peacock spider), what makes this species special is the behaviour of males during mating. They play peekaboo 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 something that comes with the job, especially if you are involved in doing fieldwork. I call these “accidents” because aside from parasites and blood-sucking arthropods, most stinging and biting arthropods are not out to get us. I only got stung and bitten when I brushed against a spider, startled it, or accidentally squeezed it. Surprisingly, the worst bite I ever experienced wasn’t from a spider. It was the bite of an assassin bug from Amazonian Ecuador. Extremely sharp, pulsating pain that lasted for a few hours. We do not know much about assassin bugs’ venom so I was also worried that there might be clinical complications. But I am still alive. The worst experience I had with an arachnid was a scorpion sting. I was searching for insects under stones in the Judean Mountains in Israel, and when I flipped a large rock I got stung by a very small Compsobuthus scorpion. It was not a dangerous species, yet the venom was strong enough to make my hand numb for a good few hours. Even after the pain faded, I could still feel discomfort over the following days.

MP: This is an easy one for someone who’s collected bloodsucking insects for more than 17 years. After I got a painless mosquito bite near my eyelid during 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, as it didn’t initially dawn on me 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 as if they were watching a scene from a horror movie.

Why aren’t you afraid of spiders?
MP: Despite the fact that all spiders are venomous, the vast majority do not have venom potent enough to harm humans. More importantly, spiders will invariably try to avoid contact with you. Consequently, the chance of being bitten is actually minimal. Simply put, there is no reason to be afraid of spiders. In fact, I am fascinated by them and I will try to get close enough to snap a pic whenever I can.

GW: The real question is, Why would I be afraid of spiders? I find them quite adorable, actually. Most spiders are shy and keep to themselves, 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, keeping populations of insects (many of which are pests and bloodsuckers) under control. I would be more afraid of larger animals and even humans, because they can sometimes be unpredictable.