A quick glance at the Preservation Parks Facebook page confirmed what I already believed to be true: People just don't like spiders and snakes.
How did Facebook tell me that? The emoticons gave it away.
Each day this year, we've been posting a picture of an Ohio creature. Last week, we put up an adorable pair of river otters, and the "thumbs up" and "hearts" icons started piling up. Viewers have fawned over pictures of muskrats, weasels, gray foxes, beavers -- even bats!
But as soon as we post pictures of creatures with scales or eight legs, we get emoticon gasps -- 14 for a barn orb weaver spider and 16 for the Eastern massasauga snake, for example.
Studies abound on why humans fear spiders and snakes, with theories ranging from an ancestral predisposition (historic accounts of poisonous bites), to negative encounters (walking into a web), to hating how they move.
But spiders and snakes are enormously beneficial in nature and to humans. Therefore, I am dedicating the rest of this column to singing the praises of these underrated creatures.
First, spiders. (Disclaimer: I've spent most of my life disliking them, but now I fear only the webs. That's progress!) Some spiders are quite cute. My favorite is the bold jumper, a smallish (a half-inch or so) fuzzy spider with iridescent green scales on its fangs. It does jump, hence its name, but is not aggressive. And I like the fact that it doesn't build webs. For those interested, our June 21 Facebook post featured this little guy.
Spiders help keep your home, yard, garden, farm fields, school and workplace free of insects, and they prevent insects from becoming overly dominant and destructive worldwide. Spiders are food for birds, reptiles and small mammals, and their silk is so strong and elastic that scientists have emulated it in the creation of parachutes and bulletproof vests. Spider venoms are studied and show promise in the medical world.
I took those facts directly from a website, spiders.us, which is full of spider facts, pictures, articles and identification tools. But anecdotally, I have not encountered a mosquito this summer -- and I live on a lake, so I must give my eight-legged friends some credit. (If only those webs on the dock were not so big.)
Even if you don't see a spider, they are probably nearby. Per the Ohio Division of Wildlife's "Common Spiders of Ohio" field guide, a small number of species always live around humans. One study found hundreds of thousands of spiders (most very tiny) in a single acre of woodland.
Now for snakes. I've pretty much taken snakes for granted my whole life, and so don't have a favorite. But I will always defend the Eastern ratsnake -- also called the black ratsnake -- because so many people revile it. Almost all phone calls that come into my office about snakes are about this, Ohio's largest snake. Nearly everyone who calls wonders if it's poisonous, and I'm quick to say "no."
What's more, the Eastern ratsnake is a pro at controlling destructive rodents; its diet includes mice, rats, chipmunks and voles, among other prey. In fact, snakes in general are great at removing pests, be they rodents, insects, slugs and even some invasive aquatic species. But the ratsnake, while usually between 4 and 6 feet long, can be up to 8 feet in length. That's big enough to strike fear in the hearts of many -- even though the snake is a help, not a threat.
Those with ophidiophobia (fear of snakes, of course) also might shudder to hear this little tidbit about the Eastern ratsnake: It's generally a forest dweller, a great climber, and often can be found high in trees, living in woodpecker holes and other cavities. So those who watch for snakes to emerge from holes in the ground or from behind rocks had better look up, too.
At Preservation Parks, we work hard to educate people about all Ohio creatures, cute or not. From reptile programs in county schools to walks through the prairies with a spider expert, we feel the best defense against fear is familiarity.
Join us! For information on parks and programs, visit preservationparks.com.
Sue Hagan is marketing and communications manager for Preservation Parks of Delaware County.