“Making Sense of the Great Whip Spider Boom”

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The Story

“Making Sense of the Great Whip Spider Boom”
by Eric Boodman
Undark, May 17, 2021

The Pitch

In a Nazi tunnel, an arachnid we’re just discovering—and unwittingly moving around

About ten years ago, entomologist Andrea Colla got an unusual request. Would he come survey the fauna of a Nazi-air raid shelter?

The warren lay under the Italian city of Trieste like a human anthill, excavated in secret, with passageways to and from the local SS chief’s villa. But the allies arrived, the general fled and killed himself with cyanide—and eventually the tunnels became a museum, managed by the Trieste Alpine Club. They wanted to know who else was hanging out down there, besides tourists, school groups, and them.

Colla is a man of cave-insects. He grew up spelunking with his tobacconist dad in the karst around Trieste, and has built a career on the conviction that if you want to find something new in Europe, you need to look deep underground. He wasn’t much interested in man-made bunkers, but he went to poke around and set some traps. For bait, he let raw meat and Gorgonzola sit out for a week. “Better if it is a cheese that smells a lot,” he explained, from his office in Trieste’s natural history museum.

Even with such enticements, he caught little of interest: pill bugs, crickets, the spiders that often inhabit basements. So he was taken aback last year when one of the air-raid tunnel custodians sent him a snapshot of what was unmistakably an amblypygid, also known as a whip spider or tailless whip scorpion—a harmless but cartoonishly evil-looking arachnid of the tropics and subtropics that is neither spider nor scorpion and had never before been reported in Italy. When he went back to check them out, he found a whole population of them.

They were popping up elsewhere, too. In 2018, an undergraduate in suburban Athens found a few scuttling through his bathroom and kitchen, made a little home for them out of a plastic container with dry leaves for cover and fungus gnats for food—and is now credited with the first official record of amblypygids in continental Europe. In 2019, another student in Irbid, Jordan, spotted one, also in a bathroom—and is now a co-author on the first paper documenting whip spiders within the country’s borders.

And Gustavo Silva de Miranda, the arachnologist who’d helped identify the critters in all of those cases, is about to outdo himself: He recently submitted a paper in which he and his colleagues describe 33 new amblypygid species, including one that seems to be endemic to the sewers beneath a Brazilian museum.

“That’s where amblypygid research is right now. It has totally exploded,” said Eileen Hebets, a professor at the University of Nebraska. “I used to be able to say ‘I’m one of three people in the world who studies amblypygids.’ Now I don’t even know how many there are.”

To her, the reason is simple: In science, as on Twitter, attention begets attention. What began as a grad student’s fringe-y obsession could, if you played your career cards right, become the slightly-less-fringe-y focus of a whole lab, eventually seeding others in its wake. Amblypygids are one of the “minor orders” of arachnids, a name they got because they’re less diverse than spiders and scorpions. But the whiff of neglect that the term carries is real, too. Among eight-legged creatures, they’re the forgotten stepchildren—footnotes in the natural history of the creepy-crawlies we’ve all heard of. Now, that means they offer a kind of shortcut to discovery. If we thought there were nothing new to be found in our basements and sewers, it’s because we haven’t been looking.

The Nazi tunnel finding is both an emblem and an outlier—and I’d like to write a feature (around 2,500 words), similar to Diane Peters’ “Feral Swine Bomb” story, about why. Hebets had long ago heard rumors of amblypygids in Italy, but this particular confirmation carries a Bong Joon-ho-like irony: The Trieste population is almost certainly one we’ve unwittingly seeded ourselves, carrying a single amblypygid into this historical site and letting its clonal reproduction do the rest. Though the cave enthusiasts in question disagree, to scientists, the most likely source is one of the Trieste Alpine Club’s expeditions elsewhere—the sorts of distant places that Colla has long seen as the last bastions of discovery. In other words, just as we’re drawing these maps for the first time, we’re also extending them.

Though I would love to spend time in person with Colla, who will serve as the frame of the story, and with the arachnologists, who will serve as the guides to the current amblypygid research boom, my hope is to reconstruct scenes and build characters through in-depth phone interviews, photos, and potentially, videos of whip spider research, so no travel is necessary. To me, this story sheds light on the fractious intersection of science and society by illustrating—though a bizarre group of arachnids scuttling around in a deeply creepy relic of war—how we’re influencing our biological discoveries before we can even fully understand them, and the tension that that can create.

A bit about me: I’m a staff reporter for STAT, where I’ve written about an entomologist who specializes in fictional infestations and an electronic musician who redesigned a heart monitor’s beep. I’ve also contributed to TheAtlantic.com and This American Life, and my stories have won a few awards—one from the American Society of Magazine Editors in 2017, another from the National Association of Science Writers in 2018, and another from the News Leaders Association in 2020.

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