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Spiders, serpents and bats, oh my!

By Scott Shalaway

Halloween can be a terrifying holiday for small children. Boogeymen and scary creatures strike terror in their hearts. I'm hoping we can dial back the fear factor associated with real creatures that often show up in Halloween decorations.

Spiders, snakes and bats are three groups that strike fear in the hearts of many, even adults. So let's consider their ecological values and then share these lessons with younger children.

Walking through spider webs can be nasty, and it often happens on walks through the woods. But we should consider ourselves lucky; even small children are too big to be fatally entangled.

Next time you spot the beautiful web of an orb-weaving spider, take a few minutes to observe and teach. Unlike Miss Patience Muffet, daughter of the spider-loving Rev. Dr. Thomas Muffet (1553-1604), many naturalists love orb-weavers. My favorite is the striking black-and-yellow garden spider. It's big, colorful, and common.

Orb weavers begin their web by building a bridge from one anchor to another. From a twig or grass stem, for example, the spider releases a strand of silk from its silk-making organs called spinnerets. A breeze catches the strand and carries it until it touches another perch, and a bridge is formed.

After reinforcing the bridge by laying down more strands of silk, the spider drops from the center of the bridge. It repeats this process a number of times in all directions until there are a series of strands radiating outward from the central hub. Then the spider adds an outward spiral to complete the web. Spider silk is strong, elastic, and sticky -- perfect for snaring unwitting prey.

Snakes also evoke strong emotional reactions from the public. Few love and appreciate them. Many fear and loathe them. I can't count the number of times I've heard people, including more than a few little old ladies, brag about chopping snakes to bits with a shovel or hoe.

And that's too bad because snakes earn their keep by eating mice, chipmunks and other small mammals. Smaller snakes that eat insects and earthworms go largely unnoticed, but larger backyard snakes bear the brunt of the typical snake-hater's rage.

Fear of snakes can be eased if done sensitively, but sometimes even the best intentions go awry. I worked with my daughters when they were quite young. Nora was just 3 when I caught a small milk snake and let her hold it. It slid through her fingers and flicked its tongue, searching for odors, in her face. Twenty-six years later, Nora has no fear of snakes.

Emma, six years younger than Nora, got her lesson at age 7, with quite different results. The "X" factor in handling snakes is that each has its own temperament. Some are nice; some are nasty.

I had Emma hold an eight-inch ring-neck snake. It was pencil thin, and the orange ring around its neck was absolutely stunning. Emma was spellbound until the snake somehow got its teeth stuck on the tip of her pinky finger.

The bite was harmless, but Emma panicked. It took me a few seconds to calm her down so I could gently work the snake's teeth from her skin. To me, it was a non-event -- no blood, no marks. To Emma, however, it was significant. Even today, 16 years later, she loathes snakes.

And then there are bats. Most kids "know" them as the source of blood-drinking vampires. But bats in this part of the country eat thousands of flying insects during their nocturnal foraging flights. They do billions of dollars worth of pest control.

Today bats are under siege by a fungal disease called white-nosed syndrome. Some species have lost as much as 95 percent of their populations. Thanks to excellent news coverage of the impacts of white nose syndrome, however, I'm hopeful that bats enjoy an improving and more sympathetic reputation.

Spiders, snakes, and bats have long had an image problem with the general public. But by understanding their role in nature, they are among the most fascinating and least frightening players on nature's ecological stage. Perhaps Halloween is the perfect time to plead their case.

Send questions and comments to Dr. Scott Shalaway, 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, West Virginia 26033 or email sshalaway@aol.com.


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