During our second fieldwork trip to France, we spent a day off in a small town of Balazuc in the Ardeche (Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region). The town had been recommended to us by a French colleague from the University of Fribourg who had grown up in the region, and had been rated as one of the most beautiful villages in the country. During this time off we were staying at a camping and holiday park on the edge of town.
One morning we were having breakfast in the café of the camping and caravan park when Suzanne spotted a large spider outside on the windowsill near our table. As an Australian, I was excited to see such a large spider, as I hadn’t seen many similarly sized individuals during my trip. Upon closer inspection the spiders abdomen was covered in smaller spiders who were being carried around by their parent (making it probably a Lycosidae- Wolf Spider, of which France has ~100 spp.). I have recently discovered that they can be called spiderlings- which is a great name!
We pointed out the spider to the other guests: a German couple who were in Balazuc to go rock climbing on the town’s limestone cliffs. They came over and were very interested in the spider, asking questions and reacting positively to its presence. It really was a David Attenborough moment, a phenomenon every biologist enjoys, the beauty of life’s diversity. An up close look at a lifestyle that is not normally visible to those who aren’t looking for it. The spider was behind glass after all. We then pointed out the spider to the holiday park owner who took a brief interest in the spiders presence and then walked away.
After returning our focus to our breakfasts, we were roused from our culinary concentration by the owner opening the window and promptly spraying the spider with a can of insect spray. As the spray hit the spiderlings they evacuated quickly off their mother, but didn’t manage to get off the windowsill before dropping dead. The mother spider struggled away, but was torn apart when the holiday park owner decided to squash the spider with the bottom of the can. While the owner was getting rid of the spiders, I was sitting beside her, in a state of Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’. I instantly regretted ever pointing out the spider to anyone. The lady while concentrating on performing her task did not notice my shocked expression.
I am not sure why I was so shocked: many people are afraid of spiders in Australia and overseas and they have definitely gotten a bad rap. On meeting new Europeans, two questions about Australia always come up early on in the conversation: 1. Anything about it being a big country and 2. Aren’t I afraid of all the deadly things that inhabit the continent? Of all these ‘deadly things’, spiders are always mentioned, despite there being no confirmed spider bite deaths in the country since 1979, and the most dangerous animal in Australia between 2000 and 2010 being the horse. You don’t hear people say “I’m too afraid to come to your country, the horse related death rate is too high”.
When questioned why she had to kill the spiders, the owner responded that they might bite people. Injury from spider bite is not unknown in southern France. In 2009 a man was nearly killed by an introduced Brown Recluse (Loxosceles reclusa) spider in the nearby department of Vaucluse. In 2015 two women were bitten by similar spiders in the southern city of Montpellier.
While concerning, the Brown Recluse (Family Sicariidae) is not known to perform parental care, unlike the care shown by Wolf Spiders (Family Lycosidae). This observation suggested that the spider in question was not the highly venomous invader that the park owner was concerned about. Wolf spiders can bite, but symptoms normally include local pain and itchiness which persist for less than ten minutes.
On reflection of the events of breakfast in Balazuc I have come to realise that in opposition to my initial shocked reaction, it was exactly the kind of kind of thing that happens in David Attenborough documentaries: a harsh reminder of the realities of nature. Not that that can be appreciated by a mother spider who is in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Chris Buddle from McGill University wrote a good article “Explainer: why are we scared of spiders?” for The Conversation.
Aranae: Spiders of Europe. Also available in Deutsch.
Balazuc listing on ‘Les plus beaux villages de France’