Brunhilda and the hand that feeds her

Just so that we’re clear, I came equipped with the usual set of pre-programmed physiological responses and they’re all here and accounted for; I assure you that I am just as fazed by the sudden sight of anything potentially dangerous as the next person. My fight, flight or freeze reaction is alive and well and easily triggered by creepy crawlies, the fact I am willing to extend my hospitality to an occasional charismatic arthropod notwithstanding. It’s just that I don’t continue panicking after having judged a stimulus mostly harmless and as far as I know, all central-European arachnids including my flatmate Brunhilda the diadem spider are harmless to the point of being helpless against humans, save for their potential to send us running by the sheer power of their presence. I am not fearful of Brunchy but if she catches me by surprise… Well here’s a video of what transpired when her delicate claw-foot made contact with my fingertip as I was attaching a snack to her web:

As demonstrated here, the FFF response of this particular human is accompanied by an alarm call. The volume of the distress signal may range from a loud gasp if the room acoustics are deemed adequate to a blood-curdling screech reserved for open spaces, but invariably there is some degree of vocalisation. (Yes I’m a shrieker and unabashedly proud of it. As luck would have it, one of my neighbours wails like a banshee when startled and hilarity ensues each time we unexpectedly bump into each other in the basement. Since the birth of humanity, it was people like us who had kept their fellow humans safe by instantly alerting them to threats real and imagined. These same individuals also excelled at obliterating the element of surprise from hunting expeditions whenever a scary bug moved into sight, which just might have been the driving force behind humans largely giving up on hunting for their meals and settling down to take up agriculture instead. So yeah, we shriekers have shaped history in ways you can’t begin to imagine.)

The above video provides a chance to observe another important element of this human’s FFF response: the reflex arc in action. See how my hand moves from the spider upon contact even though my brain knows the creature intends me no harm? This is because my medulla spinalis is faster at reacting than my cerebrum and immensely more prone to panic. I am far from alone in the fact that many of the critical decisions in my life have been made by my spinal cord while my brain was relegated to the role of the observer, only to be called back into action when it was time to deal with the aftermath. Hear the silly giggle that follows the flight-of-hand? That’s the sound of my brain regaining control over the situation and appreciating the humour contained therein.

However the truly fascinating aspect of the video is the behaviour of the spider in the presence of her human roomie. When Brunchy first arrived, she was a lanky spider so wary of people that my attempts at feeding her almost invariably resulted in her dashing for the safety of the window vent. About a year later, she is an ample-bottomed arachnid of formidable size that isn’t afraid to run towards me in expectation of a meal. Who knows, if I hadn’t flinched she might have wrestled the fly from my grip. As you can see, it wasn’t just me who was freaked out by the close encounter and poor Brunchy briefly regressed to her dash-for-the-vent phase. However in testament to the goodwill my regular deliveries of food had earned me, she didn’t run all the way up like she used to and I easily bribed her into trusting me again a few minutes later (you don’t want to know the lengths I go to in order to secure food for Brunchy). Funny but I could almost swear she now deliberately waits a split second longer before scurrying for the point where my hand touched her web.

Anyway, one thing is for sure: Brunhilda is a mighty little beast who makes me cherish the fact our body size ratio is tilted heavily to my advantage. In the unlikely event you have no idea what I mean, here’s an early portrait of Brunchy… Line up for hugs!Brunhilda-wanna-hug