I have known a few spider curators in my time, and they can on occasion be troublesome. For more than fifteen years I was the curator of mammals at the Australian Museum in Sydney, and my office was located between that of the nation's foremost snake expert and the museum's curator of spiders. Accidents do happen in museums, and I have on occasion found myself sitting at my desk not suspecting that a live snake lurked in my filing cabinet. Yet it was the rather eccentric habits of the curator of spiders that most unnerved me. I don't count myself as a great arachnophobe, but on occasion*, when dashing out of my office door on some urgent errand and bumping into the curator, whose hands were full of deadly Sydney funnel-web spiders, I admit to being discomforted**.
He was a delightful fellow to be sure-- bearded, gentle, and erudite-- but I dreaded visiting his office, for aquariums containing live spiders had been crammed into every corner, and the walkways between them were so narrow that the room seemed transformed into a den of oversized, hairy-legged monstrosities. Worst of all, he was so fond of his charges that whenever I crossed his threshold he would invariably reach into an aquarium and enthusiastically wave his latest acquisition in my face.
Until recently the goliath tarantula of Amazonia was believed to be the largest spider on earth. Then someone collected an enormous spider in the remote rain forests of southeastern Peru. Its body was almost four inches long, and its legs spanned almost ten inches. It is said by those familiar with these near-mythical beasts that up to fifty share a single burrow, and that they cooperate in the hunt. Hillyard's clinical description of this new and as yet unnamed discovery (though it has been called araños pollo, chicken spider) has embedded in it the stuff of nightmares. I can imagine the scientist intent on studying them struggling through precipitous country and an endless tangle of roots, vines, and thickets as he forces his way toward their habitat. And then, in a sudden silence, he hears the drumming of countless hairy legs on dry leaves as the colony erupts from their abode. Though just how the spiders "cooperate in prey capture to overcome large animals" is perhaps best left unimagined.
--Tim Flannery (1956- ), in a review of Paul Hillyard's book The Private Life of Spiders, published in the New York Review of Books, 1 May 2008.
*Third use of "on occasion" in one paragraph (I'm just saying).