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In Defense of Spiders.

Spider specialist at London's Natural History Museum Paul Hillyard. His 1994 book is "The Book of the Spider: From Arachnophobia to The Love of Spiders" (Random House)


Other segments from the episode on July 23, 1997

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, July 23, 1997: Interview with Harry Greene; Interview with Paul Hillyard; Commentary on Brazil and music.


Date: JULY 23, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 072301np.217
Head: The Evolution of Mystery in Nature
Sect: Science
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

One of the creatures you probably fear most is the one my guest is obsessed with: the snake. There are 2,700 species of snakes. Harry Greene is particularly interested in the venomous ones.

He travels around the world studying the behavior of serpents. He's done field work in Europe, Africa, Latin America, the West Indies, and the United States.

He's curator of Herpetology in the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at the University of California-Berkeley. And he's the author of the new book "Snakes: The Evolution of Mystery in Nature."

Before we started to record the interview, Greene asked me what I thought of snakes. Well, a logical question for him to ask, I thought. But next, he asked me what I thought of spiders. I couldn't figure out why he wanted to know.

HARRY GREENE, CURATOR OF HERPETOLOGY, MUSEUM OF VERTEBRATE ZOOLOGY, UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA-BERKELEY: I asked you about the spiders because it turns out to be the case that a fair number of people who like snakes are arachnophobic. They're afraid of spiders, at least mildly so.

GROSS: People who like snakes are afraid of spiders?

GREENE: The most famous person is probably E.O. Wilson, who you've probably talked to before.

GROSS: Oh, I have. Yeah.

GREENE: Yeah. He admits to being mildly arachnophobic and I am also, and I have no idea why these two things are coupled.

GROSS: You are afraid of spiders?

GREENE: I'm -- well, I'm uneasy about them. And I don't like being surprised by them.

GROSS: Even ones that aren't poisonous?

GREENE: Well, I think all spiders are venomous in a sense that they, you know, they have these little fangs and venom and so forth. It's just that only some of them affect people. But yes, even the ones that aren't dangerous to people give me the willys.

GROSS: That's really interesting, 'cause so many people get the willys from snakes and you love snakes.

GREENE: That's right. I would handle large venomous snakes all day long before I'd pick up a tarantula.

GROSS: Hmm. What is it that -- could you figure it out?

GREENE: I have no idea. It's very strange, because I've never been afraid of snakes since I was a small child and I've always been uneasy about spiders.


GREENE: You know, we know that the whole thing about snakes is very complicated; that it's likely that people have sort of a learning bias, an innate learning bias, to be afraid of snakes. And yet that bias can be easily reversed or reinforced by early experience, with your parents, your classmates and so forth.

And perhaps spiders are the same way. Maybe something happened to me when I was a little kid. Maybe my mother was afraid of spiders or something, and I grew up not having any fear of snakes reinforced, but having a fear of spiders reinforced.

GROSS: Now I know you're particularly interested in venomous snakes, so before we get any further, let me hit you with a question that I'm sure everyone wants to hear, which is: have you been bitten?

GREENE: Ah, that's an embarrassing question because I wish I could say I'd never been bitten. But I was bitten once by a not very big copperhead when I was a teenager, and it was not a serious bite. I was measuring the copperhead in my garage laboratory.

I was 17 years old, and I was watching the tail tip next to the yardstick more carefully than I was watching the head. And the snake managed to get one fang out the side of its mouth and poke me in the thumb.

GROSS: What's the most dangerous snake that you've handled?

GREENE: Most dangerous snake I've handled is called a "turceo-palo" in Costa Rica. A lot of people know it as a "ferdilance." It's a very large pit viper; reaches the length of maybe seven feet or more and has very long fangs, very powerful venom, fairly prone to bite.

GROSS: And what do you do when you handle it? What's the best way to handle it?

GREENE: Well, actually I should tell you I try -- I've tried to get away from actually handling venomous snakes. When I started out in herpetology, it was common to handle venomous snakes by holding their head down with a metal hook and then picking them up carefully between your finger and your thumb.

And when I started going to meetings of herpetologists, people that study reptiles and amphibians, it was not uncommon to encounter something we called the "herpetologist handshake" which was a missing finger or a finger that looked like it had been in a pencil sharpener, or even a large mass of scar tissue in the palm.

And that's not very common now, and I think the main reason is that we've tried to get away from that. And I have picked up many venomous snakes with my bare hands before and I try to not do it anymore.

The way we do it is to use a plexiglass tube that's a little bit larger in diameter than the snake. And then with our snake hook, we coax the venomous snake to crawl part way up into the plexiglass tube, so it's essentially muzzled.

Then you can just pick it up right where the snake goes into the tube, and hold it so it can't move forward or backward -- can you sort of visualize...

GROSS: Absolutely. Yeah.

GREENE: And it's great because it doesn't traumatize the snakes as much. It turned out that this mashing of the head down on the ground with enough force that you could safely restrain the snake is probably pretty hard on the animal. And they really freak out -- they start thrashing around trying to break free and trying to bite.

And if you run them up this plexiglass tube, they obviously feel restrained and usually struggle a little bit, but they don't just start flipping about and thrashing and trying to bite. So it's both more humane and much safer for us.

GROSS: Why do you need to handle snakes?

GREENE: Well, I study snakes and I teach about snakes. So the way I study snakes, mainly, is to surgically implant tiny radios in them, such that I can find the snake over and over again and then sit down and observe its behavior. So in order to do the surgical implantation, first I have to catch the snake and then I have to anesthetize it. We use the same vapor that works well on people.

We just run them up in the plexiglass tube like I just described and then squirt halophane (ph) or isofluorine vapors, which are the common anesthetics for people, into the other end of the tub. In about 10 minutes, the snake is in deep surgical anesthesia and we can make a little incision in the side and put a tiny little radio in the animal's body cavity, put a few sutures in, and let it back out into the wild and then watch it for a couple of years.

GROSS: So you can pick up transmissions and know where the snake is, and then follow the snake in its behavior.

GREENE: Exactly. That's right. When I was a kid, or when I was a student, a college student, I wanted to be a biologist and I -- my hero above all was a guy named George Schaller (ph). Maybe you've met George also. He's sort of famous for studying pandas and mountain sheep and so on.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

GREENE: And the reason I idolized him was not because he worked with these big stinky mammals, but because he could watch individual animals...

GROSS: Oh, you prefer snakes, huh?

GREENE: Oh, very much, very much. And he could watch them for long periods of time, throughout their lives. And I thought that was going to be impossible with snakes, because it was hard enough to find a snake once, but to find the same snake over and over again, say, for a period of five or six years, which I've now done with some blacktail rattlesnakes, just seemed impossible.

And the miniaturization of radio-telemetry (ph) has made that possible. It's a technological trick that's just revolutionized the study of snakes.

GROSS: So what are some of the things that you can learn now because you can follow one snake over the course of five years or more?

GREENE: Well, there are a lot of things that you might expect. They're sort of routine, like how do they find their mates and how do they hunt and how to males react to each other in the presence of a mating female, and so forth. And so I could tell you about the details of that.

But in fact, for me, the most spectacular thing and I think the thing that's had the most impact on my own attitudes as a person and as a biologist have been watching individual animals and getting this very strong sense that they're idiosyncratic; that they have individual personalities and that they have a very detailed knowledge of their surroundings, which they gain through experience and use in the course of being successful hunters and so forth.

GROSS: Tell us about the personality of one snake that you followed over years?

GREENE: OK. Well, in Arizona, I've watched a total of about 26 blacktail rattlesnakes now for the last eight years, and some of them I've watched for as much as six years. And each of these animals has a very well-defined home range that it uses over and over again, and uses exact travel routes. And this home range would be sort of an elliptical or oval portion of a canyon, maybe half a mile long.

And in the course of an active season from April through October, a large male, which would be about a yard long, might travel this oval two or three, four times, sometimes in just one day, while either looking for wood rats to eat or looking for females with which to mate.

And the kinds of differences we see among individuals, for example, are that most of these snakes eat wood rats. You might have heard of these as pack rats -- these rats that are pretty common in the Southwestern U.S. that make a big nest out of sticks and trash and cactus pads and so forth. And the snakes hunt by positioning themselves perpendicular to the rat's runways. And so the rat comes bopping along and doesn't see the snake and then gets bitten and eaten.

Well, of 26 snakes now, 25 of them basically hunt like that. One of them, female number 12, has got a thing for chipmunks...


... and she hunts by positioning herself perpendicular at the base of big trees and sometimes up in trees. And she's the only individual among these 26 blacktail rattlesnakes that we've observed hunting like that, and yet she does it repeatedly.

It's a -- and of course, I have no idea yet what the origin of this difference is among individuals; whether she -- you know -- a chance activity caused her to become a chipmunk hunter or whether she has some genetic predispositions for that difference.

GROSS: And does it make you feel good to know that individual snakes have their own eccentricities?

GREENE: Absolutely. Absolutely. If -- I think -- there was a survey recently of people who are professional animal behaviorists and it turned out that many of us, if really pressed, say that a real defining motivation for doing what we do is that we wonder what it's like to be a particular organism. So, some people wonder what it's like to be a lion; some people wonder what it's like to be a duck. And I wonder what it's like to be a snake.

And I think one reason I find that very satisfying is because it's such a challenge -- snakes are so mysterious. They don't have these eyelids and facial features with which we easily identify.

GROSS: They don't have legs. I mean...

GREENE: Mm-hmm. Yeah.

GROSS: ... so there's absolutely -- well, there's so little as a human that you can identify with as a snake. There's no...

GREENE: That's right.

GROSS: ... so little in the way of similarities.

GREENE: That's right. They seem inscrutable at first.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

GREENE: And so watching these individuals, and I often just sit for fairly long periods of time with binoculars, maybe 10 or 15 feet away from a snake, while it's hunting or courting or mating or whatever. And I just watch them; and I've watched the same individuals for weeks on end, year after year, and it -- I have this very strong feeling of things like intentionality and so forth on the part of the snakes.

GROSS: It's funny, you know, as a herpetologist, you probably dream about snakes. You're interested in them. You work with them. But if I were a Freudian analyst, I'd say it was just all phallic.


GREENE: Uh-huh. Right.

GROSS: Did that ever happen to you -- that people kind of misread this kind of symbolism onto your interest in snakes?

GREENE: Certainly. Certainly. Or they just think it's goofy.

GROSS: Right.

GREENE: You know?

GROSS: Right.

GREENE: But I actually, insofar as I can understand this, I've thought some about why -- especially why venomous snakes?

GROSS: Yeah.

GREENE: And that's actually how my book started. In 1983, through an editor at the University of Chicago Press, I met Norman MacLean, the man who wrote "A River Runs Through It."

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

GREENE: And I had admired Norman's book a lot and when I met him, I was wanting to write about things other than science. And I thought by talking to Norman, I could figure out how to write something. And instead, he just kept saying: "why do you want to work with those rattlesnakes? Why don't you go write about that?

And at the time I didn't really -- wasn't really able to come to grips with the question.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

GREENE: And so I -- the book, my book has like a smaller book running through it of essays at the start of each chapter, which are -- explore this and lead to an epilogue that's my answer to Norman's question. And in a very short version, it's that I -- somehow I think venomous snakes are icons for violence and life and death kinds of issues, without having any evil or malevolence.

You know, they're lacking in those anthropocentric things, so you can contemplate life and death kinds of things without there being these human connotations.

GROSS: That's interesting. Right -- they can kill you, but they're not -- it's not they're out for revenge or they want to hurt you. It's just their instinct. It's just how they eat and survive.

GREENE: That's right. They're trying to defend themselves, yes. Or they kill the rat because that's no different than you going to grocery store and picking out a side of beef or something. You know, the mechanism is a little different.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Harry Greene. He's a herpetologist who also teaches at the University of California at Berkeley. His new book is called Snakes: The Evolution of Mystery in Nature.

Let's take a short break and then we'll talk some more.

This is FRESH AIR.

Back with herpetologist Harry Greene. He's the author of the new book Snakes: The Evolution of Mystery in Nature.

You are particularly interested in venomous snakes. Why do snakes have venom?

GREENE: Well, we know -- what we know is that snakes use venom for various things. Probably all venomous snakes are using their venom to subdue prey. And maybe you know that snakes have this capacity to just eat enormous meals, and in the case of venomous snakes, they can eat meals up to about one-and-a-half times their body weight. So here I am 170 pound male, think in terms of me being able to eat a 210, 215-pound hamburger in 20 minutes without chopping it into pieces.

Now, they can only do that because they can subdue that meal. You know, I couldn't subdue a 220-pound cow and then swallow it whole, you know, without knife, fork -- implements and so on.

So the first thing venom does, probably, is it lets them subdue things. The other probably really important role it often plays is to help them digest things.

So when this rattlesnake is sitting next to a rat runway and the rat comes by and the snake, out of hiding, strikes it for just an instant, and with these hypodermic needle-like fangs, injects this venom into the rat, and then lets go -- the rat goes bounding off.

And as the rat goes bounding down the side of the canyon, its own heartbeats are circulating the digestive enzymes that are in the snake's venom. In the meantime, the snake starts crawling along, tracking the rat -- following its chemical trail. And the snake can distinguish between the trail of a bitten rat and an unbitten rat. Within a few minutes, it locates the rat which is by now dead, and by now is already being digested from the inside out.

So those are probably the two main roles -- are to subdue really big prey and to help digest this really big item that's soon going to be stuck in their stomach.

Of course, there is an obvious third use, which is that many venomous snakes defend themselves with their venom.

GROSS: You've probably spent a lot of time watching snakes eat their prey?


GROSS: How long does it take for the rodent that the snake has ingested whole to stop being a big bulge in the body of the snake?

GREENE: You can watch it go down day by day, but say it was a snake that ate something approaching its own body weight. It might take it in the wild something like a week to 10 days to digest it. In fact once, with my radios, I found a female blacktail rattlesnake in the fall when it was quite chilly.

I walked up to her with my antenna and my receiver and locator and she had eaten what I think was a brush rabbit that probably weighed more than she did, and was so big that she couldn't coil and I don't think she could move.

And so of course I become somewhat attached to these animals, having captured them and anesthetized them and put a radio in them, so my first thought was: oh, no, she's going to explode. It's cold and, you know, we have a lot of predators at our study site; maybe one's going to catch her.

But each day, I would come out and relocate her and each day the bulge would be a little smaller, and after nine days, she crawled up the canyon and went into hibernation, having eaten what was maybe a third of her energy budget for the whole year in this one feeding event.

GROSS: When you wonder what it's like to be a snake, do you wonder what it's like to have this big thing in the middle of your body after you've eaten?

GREENE: That's an interesting question 'cause I've tried to imagine various things about being a snake, and that's one I haven't had much success sort of thinking up a metaphor or a analog for. You know, I know that if I overeat, I don't feel comfortable. But I never eat anything remotely close to even 20 or 30 percent of my body weight at one meal.

So that's actually -- I probably -- I've tried to imagine what it's like to slither.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

GREENE: I can't come very close to that. I've tried to imagine what it would be like to literally walk my head over an object bigger than me, and have my whole stomach stretched around it, and I can't empathize with that very well.

I've tried to think about what it would be like to live in a chemical realm. In other words, if somehow smell for us could have the texture and nuance that vision does, what would that be like?

GROSS: Is that the realm the snake lives in?

GREENE: That's pretty much the realm a snake lives in. They have eyes and they can see, but there's just no question that chemo-sensation, which is what that forked tongue is for, is preeminent in the lives of most snakes. And the closest I've come, I've tried to imagine odor experiences for humans where it has subliminal effects on us, you know -- where it has effects that we don't even think about.

And one of them would be like: have you ever been driving down the highway and you happen to pass by a bakery?

GROSS: Yeah.

GREENE: And so, suddenly it comes in your car window -- the smell of fresh-baked bread or yeast rolls. And you know, just almost before you think about it, you just start imagining right out of the oven yeast rolls with butter on them, or something like that.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

GREENE: And I think that's in the direction of what it would be like to be a snake. Probably a more powerful example would be if you've ever noticed the odors you can smell in a landscape that you like after it rains.

GROSS: Yeah, yeah.

GREENE: And you -- for me, that's a very hopeful, happy feeling, to be driving along in the Sonoran Desert, for example, and smell the creosote odors and so forth right after a rain. I think before I consciously think about what does that mean, I'm already feeling sort of exhilarated and optimistic because of it.

And I think that being a snake must be like that in the chemical world, except a lot more.

GROSS: You know the snake is such a powerful symbol dating back to the Bible, and the Garden of Eden. What do you think it is about snakes that arouses such strong reactions?

GREENE: I have an idea about that. I write about this some in the book. I think the most interesting puzzle about this is that we have both an attraction and an aversion. And I think the reason is understandable -- it was understandable to me once I realized that.

I found accounts of every major group of primates both eating snakes and being eaten by snakes. So I found a picture of a tarcier (ph) -- this weird little alien-looking primate from the Philippines that has the sticky toe pads and the giant eyes. I found a picture of a tarcier eating a very dangerous cobra relative in Borneo. And yet, I've also found records of snakes eating all the major groups of primates.

So my hunch is that since long before we were people, in fact long before we were apes, humans and our forbears have been confronting snakes both as a pretty good meal and also as a very dangerous thing to step on or pick up. And so there's a certain -- there's an ambiguity, an ambivalence to our relationships there.

Plus, snakes symbolize all kinds of things, including probably sexual things, but -- like you mentioned earlier.

GROSS: Harry Greene is the author of Snakes: The Evolution of Mystery in Nature. He's curator of Herpetology at the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at the University of California-Berkeley. We'll talk more in the second half of our show.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Back with snake expert Harry Greene. He'd studied snakes in their natural habitats around the world and he's the author of the new book Snakes: The Evolution of Mystery in Nature.

So what species of snakes are you most involved studying now?

GREENE: For the past several years, I've been working in Arizona and mostly working on rattlesnakes, and particularly something called the blacktail rattlesnake, which is a really beautiful yellow and diamond-patterned animal with a jet-black tail and sort of a black mask through the eyes. Looks sort of like Indian beadwork.

GROSS: Why do rattlers rattle?

GREENE: To scare people away -- to scare adversaries away. And that's virtually the only reason. The rattle doesn't rattle -- they don't rattle, for example, when they're trying to catch prey or when they're courting -- times like that.

In fact, the only time I ever hear the rattle, other than when the snake is upset, is that the courtship involves the male sort of poking around the female's tail with his tail. And often for the first several hours, and even several days of a courtship encounter, the female kind of keeps the male at bay. He follows her around just for hours and rubs her back and tongue-flicks her back and so forth.

And every few minutes, he tries to lift her tail with his so he can mate with her. And at that stage, she slaps him away with her tail, and it makes a clanking sound of the rattles, not a loud buzzing like you get when they're defending themselves.

So sometimes when I'm sitting and watching a courting pair, and they disappear into vegetation and I can't seem them well, I'll know exactly what stage the courtship is at when I hear this "clack, clack, clack, clack, clack," I know that she's just slapped him away and the whole thing's starting over.

GROSS: And how dangerous is the rattlesnake's bite?

GREENE: Well, you know, it turns out we don't have real good statistics on snakebite in this country. Probably many snakebites, perhaps even some snakebite deaths, go unreported. But people guess in the neighborhood of 2,000 bites a year from all venomous snakes in this country, and maybe 10 deaths a year in the whole United States.

And it turns out, we know now pretty much what causes death, so if you actually were to die from a rattlesnake bite, it would probably be because you went into shock from having your blood circulatory system damaged. And that's preventable in a hospital situation.

So the bottom line is that basically you shouldn't die from a snakebite in this country with proper medical care.

GROSS: If you had a friend who was bit by a snake, would you try to make an incision and suck out the venom, like we see in old cowboy movies?

GREENE: Well, I wouldn't make an incision. I don't think anybody recommends that any more, for a couple of reasons. One is: we were always recommending that people stay calm, and I don't know why we didn't stop to think that you're not very likely to be calm if somebody's whacking away at your finger with a dull Swiss Army knife. You know, I mean that's sort of guaranteed to make you not calm.

And the other thing is there's a fairly serious danger that you would cut a nerve or a tendon or a blood vessel and actually cause something much more serious than the snakebite in terms of permanent injury.

There is -- there are snakebite kits that act as suction devices, and there is a possibility that they do some good. So physicians I've worked with do recommend using those suction devices if they're conveniently available immediately.

But the most important thing is just to keep the victim calm and get them to a medical facility.

GROSS: You explained before that part of what the snake venom does to the snake's prey is pre-digest it.

GREENE: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: So like a mouse, for instance, would start getting digested from the inside out before the snake has even had a chance to swallow it.

GREENE: That's right.

GROSS: Do humans get pre-digested by snake venom when they're bit?

GREENE: That's right. So if you were to get bitten by a good-sized rattlesnake in the hand, within a couple of hours probably your whole forearm would be swollen. Certainly by the next day, probably your entire arm would be twice its normal diameter. So actually, it's pretty gross. I mean, if you got bitten by a big viper, within a day or two your arm or hand would basically look it had been barbecued.

GROSS: Harry Greene is my guest. He's a herpetologist and the author of the new book Snakes: The Evolution of Mystery in Nature.

What's it like for you to study snakes in the rain forest, as opposed to, say, in the mountains or something? I mean, the snakes there are surrounded by so much wildlife.

GREENE: Mm-hmm. Well, you know, tropical rain forests in general have the richest faunas and floras on earth, and it's a general trend that if you go from temperate regions to the tropics, you get more species in the tropics. So in California, for example, I know a few places where you might find 15 species of snakes in one small area.

But I worked -- and the whole state only has about 30 species of snakes. And that's quite a lot. California's a big, complicated state with lots of elevation; lots of different botanical regions and so forth. And you have about 30 snake species in the whole state.

I worked in a place in Costa Rica, a five square-mile reserve, that had about 60 species of snakes in relatively homogeneous rain forest. So you really pack lots of species into a small area. The place I just returned from in Vietnam has the richest snake fauna in the world -- about 100 species in one small isolated mountain range.

So when you walk in that kind of forest, you're almost -- it's almost claustrophobic from the biological diversity. I mean, you're just surrounded with it.

Now, in terms of its effect on me, I actually like working in deserts better.


GREENE: I really enjoy the rich biodiversity of tropical forests, but I find them a little bit claustrophobic, and I -- I like working in a dry, hot environment where I can see long distances. I just find it emotionally more satisfying to look out over these big open landscapes.

GROSS: There's a lot of species of snakes that are endangered. Snakes aren't kind of cute and cuddly, so it's easier, probably, to not care...

GREENE: That's right.

GROSS: ... about the snakes. I'm sure you run up against that a lot. Tell us why you care about snakes that are endangered and why you think we should care as well.

GREENE: Well, you know, for me, I actually like snakes and so of course, for selfish reasons, I'd like to see the world continue to contain snakes.

You know, I could justify wanting to keep snakes around from a practical point of view, in that I think when you look out at nature, all of nature is just a big experiment. There are all these plants and animals out there trying to solve the problem of making a living and surviving.

And when you consider the literally hundreds of thousands of species trying to do this, we've essentially got unlimited solutions to all kinds of problems out there. The easiest way to sort of give an example of this value of biodiversity is to think about flight. So if I could just take you away from snakes for just a second.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

GREENE: Just ask yourself if we would have ever -- if Leonardo would have ever looked up in the sky and wondered if we could fly if there weren't birds or insects. I mean, it's hard for me to imagine that he would have just spontaneously started wiggling his arms and said: "huh, I wonder if we do this fast enough or stick something broad enough on them, we can get up there into the sky?"

So I think that nature's just basically a vast, vast pool of inspiration, both aesthetically and practically. And snakes are part of that vast pool of inspiration. Not everyone's going to be inspired by them like I am, but many people are.

And beyond the sort of aesthetic, emotional inspiration, there are all these possibilities for problem-solving. I'd take you back there to components in snake venom that turn out to be good anticoagulants, and components in frog skin that turn out to be good morphine-mimics and things like that.

GROSS: Where are you off to next?

GREENE: I'm going to Arizona next week for about a month. And so about a week from now, I'll start watching blacktail rattlesnakes again.

GROSS: I wish you happy trails.

GREENE: Thank you very much.

GROSS: And I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

GREENE: It's wonderful talking to you.

GROSS: Harry Greene is the author of Snakes: The Evolution of Mystery in Nature. He is curator of Herpetology at the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at the University of California-Berkeley.

Remember at the beginning of the interview, he confessed that he, like many snakes experts, is afraid of spiders. Where here's how he reacts when he's studying snakes in the forest and he finds a spider crawling on him.

GREENE: I freak out. I've been known to let out a yell and start flailing my arms around when I suddenly find a large spider on my face, yes.

GROSS: Well, I'm not a spider enthusiast myself, but as a responsible journalist, it is my duty to invite someone to defend the spider. We'll bring you that defense after this break.

This is FRESH AIR.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Harry Greene
High: Curator of Herpetology in the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology and Professor of Integrative Biology at the University of California, Harry Greene. He has a new comprehensive guide to snakes, "Snakes: The Evolution of Mystery in Nature."
Spec: Animals; Reptiles; Snakes
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
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End-Story: The Evolution of Mystery in Nature
Date: JULY 23, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 072303NP.217
Head: To the Love of Spiders
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:40

TERRY GROSS, HOST: Many of us recoil in horror at the sight of a large spider, but not my guest Paul Hillyard. He moves in to admire it in its full detail.

Hillyard has been the spider specialist at London's Natural History Museum since 1974, where he maintains the National Spider Collection, and he's the author of "The Book of the Spider: From Arachnophobia to the Love of Spiders."

I asked him why he loved spiders.

PAUL HILLYARD, SPIDER SPECIALIST, NATURAL HISTORY MUSEUM, LONDON: I love spiders because they are beautiful; they are fascinating; and they're very admirable in the way they spin their webs. And you can't help but be impressed when you watch a spider spinning an orb web, which is an incredibly complex piece of engineering.

And the skill that spiders have is tremendous. But it's their variety that really interests me. You've got spiders from the size of your hand -- huge, great, hairy tarantulas down to tiny little spiders that are smaller than a pinhead. I think the very smallest record in the world is about .4 of a millimeter in length, and that's fully grown.

And then you've got hairy, perhaps unattractive species, and you've also got very, very brightly colored ones. And the sheer diversity is amazing, and you can always find spiders whatever time of year, wherever you are, there's always some around.

GROSS: Our snake expert is afraid of spiders, and he finds that a lot of snake experts don't like spiders. So I'm wondering how you feel about snakes?

HILLYARD: Yeah, I think that I have certainly some respect for them. But I don't think I have an irrational fear. I know people describe them as being very slimy and slithering and all this kind of thing -- no, I think they're beautiful creatures, like spiders. But obviously, if one is going to come towards me, then I'll probably run.

But most spiders -- most snakes depart as you watch through the countryside, and you just try to get a glimpse of them. I don't really have an irrational fear of snakes.

GROSS: Were you ever bitten by a spider?

HILLYARD: No, not at all, because I'm careful, of course. I think a lot of people have been bitten, and that could explain some cases of arachnophobia, the fear of spiders. But in fact, my theory is that a lot of people are afraid of spiders because it's a general thing in the culture these days.

Certainly, over here in the UK, I estimate about half the population is afraid of spiders and that makes about 27 million people. Almost everybody is afraid of spiders, but there could be some genuine reasons why that is -- and that could be.

But we have such a big hairy long-legged spider here that can reach about five inches in leg span and frequently gets into people's houses. This moves in such a creepy way -- it moves very quickly on these long legs and gets into the bath and runs across the carpet. And that could explain why we, in this country, have a very high level of arachnophobia. Though that spider is actually harmless.

GROSS: So this really large spider that crawls across bathtubs and carpets in England, does it have a name?

HILLYARD: Yes, tegenaria (ph) -- that's the Latin name. We call it the giant house spider, and in fact it is being introduced into the U.S.A. You have one of the varieties in the Northwest, up in Washington State, that's locally called the "hobo" spider. That has originally come from Europe. It's one of these tegenarias.

And then you have another one, tegenaria "gigantia," and I think that's also been introduced into the states. So perhaps you've got the same problems coming.

GROSS: What are some of the popular misconceptions you think people have about spiders that helps feed the fear of spiders?

HILLYARD: Yes, I think people do have some very strange misconceptions. A lot of people think that spiders have a particular -- they are particularly gunning for them. They're lurking in the bathtub down the plug hole, down the drain, and just waiting for them to appear when they're going to the bath. This kind of thing.

They have a feeling that the spider is just waiting for them under the bed -- that it really is determined to get them. But this is rubbish. Of course, spiders don't have any such designs on humans at all. They do often live around human habitations, that's the problem. But they're completely neutral when it comes to humans. They -- we don't interest them at all and they don't have any sort of venomous designs on us whatsoever.

So people imagine this. I know arachnophobic people -- this is the way they think.

GROSS: Do most spiders have the potential to bite?

HILLYARD: Nearly all of them can bite. They nearly all have venom glands. There's just one family that is an exception -- doesn't have venom. But they nearly all can bite, so if you are crazy enough to pick up a spider in your hands, yeah, it can bite.

But only a few are really venomous in terms of the reaction to our own body tissues. And perhaps out of 35,000 species of spiders around the world, maybe 200 or so would come into that category. They can bite and they can produce fairly significant symptoms of pain, swelling, and in the worst cases, some spider bites, of course, have caused death.

GROSS: What about a mild spider bite from a not venomous, not very venomous spider?

HILLYARD: Yeah, it could hurt for a little bit; might cause a swelling that might last for a day. The thing about spider bites is, though, you must always look for a double puncture mark because so many people blame any bite on spiders. They think of spiders first. So if all you can see is one puncture mark, then that was not a spider.

Of course, spiders are like snakes in that respect. There's a double puncture mark.

GROSS: Do they have the equivalent of two front teeth as fangs?

HILLYARD: Yes, the fangs are like a couple of hypodermic needles. In some species, they're very, very impressive. Those fangs -- the needle part -- is half an inch long. So sure, they can be pretty impressive.

But many spiders can't actually penetrate human skin. So for example, the black widow -- pretty familiar to Americans, I think -- it's only the female that can bite. The much-smaller male is totally harmless when it comes to humans.

GROSS: What are your favorite places to investigate spiders?

HILLYARD: The tropical countries anywhere, where there are plenty of spiders and the size of the webs is enormous. You can get webs built from three to tree in the jungle with a great big spider sitting in the middle. They're the ones I really love.

And also when you look at the web, you see lots of other spiders muscling in to get a free meal. You know, that web can pick up other insects that the owner doesn't notice. And lots of things are going on, so they're fascinating.

GROSS: One of the words you use to describe spiders is "beautiful." Convince me that spiders are beautiful.

HILLYARD: Well, you know you have got in America a particularly beautiful bunch of jumping spiders, and these are colored like jewels. They are shiny red or orange or bright green, and they are known as citipus (ph) and they are a group of jumping spiders which don't spin webs but jump after their prey. They are very, very cute little spiders because they are also very alert, and as you approach them, they turn and look at you, which is unusual among spiders.

You have there in the states these citipus, jumping spiders, and they're all -- most of them are brightly colored. And they are really stars among the spider world. So if only you could see some of them, you would understand what I mean.

GROSS: What's the most dangerous spider you've ever come across?

HILLYARD: The Brazilian Wandering Spider, and that is one that would put the wind up anybody because they move quickly. They're quite big. And if you get a broom or a brush to fend it off -- sometimes they do invade houses in Brazil -- and you use this broom, they jump onto the broom and run up the handle towards you.

So they are one of the aggressive spiders in the world. In fact, you better drop that broom because they can bite and they certainly hurt. In fact, I think some of the hospitals in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, they handled as many as 1,000 spider bites by the Brazilian Wandering Spider each year. So the locals there, they know all about it. And they're quite afraid of them.

GROSS: Well, since it is a dangerous spider, when you come across one, is your instinct to try to kill it to protect yourself?

HILLYARD: Oh, definitely not. No, to collect it or to take a photograph, and certainly let it go in peace. Oh no, no -- spiders are really on our side because they are keeping down the pests -- the pest insects. So we certainly should live in partnership with them.

GROSS: How would you capture it?

HILLYARD: Probably with a bucket and a kind of a brush. You've got to have a fairly strong presence of mind. Many people couldn't do it. Then you'd put something over the top of the bucket, and then decide what you'd do after that.

GROSS: Ask for help.


Well, Paul Hillyard, thank you very much for talking with us.

HILLYARD: That's OK, Terry.

GROSS: Paul Hillyard is the spider specialist at London's Natural History Museum and author of The Book of the Spider.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Paul Hillyard
High: Spider specialist at London's Natural History Museum Paul Hillyard. His 1994 book is "The Book of the Spider: From Arachnophobia to The Love of Spiders."
Spec: Insects; Spiders; History
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright (c) 1997 National Public Radio, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. under license from National Public Radio, Inc. Formatting copyright (c) 1997 Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to National Public Radio, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission. For further information please contact NPR's Business Affairs at (202) 414-2954
End-Story: To the Love of Spiders
Date: JULY 23, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 072303NP.217
Head: Music in Brazil
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:55

TERRY GROSS, HOST: Our classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz has had some memorable experiences in Brazil, mainly as a result of his interest in the American poet Elizabeth Bishop who lived there for 20 years.

Lloyd has just returned from this third trip to Brazil, this time accompanying a group of young musicians, and he's come back, he says, with some unexpected feelings about the trip.

LLOYD SCHWARTZ, FRESH AIR COMMENTATOR: I'd been to Brazil twice, and those occasions were among the happiest of my life. In the process of lecturing about a poet I loved, Elizabeth Bishop, who had lived there for some 20 years, and coming back the next year to teach American poetry to Brazilian students, I fell in love with the country -- the landscape, the food, the people -- and made what I hoped would be a lasting connection.

When the New England Conservatory invited me to accompany their Youth Philharmonic Orchestra on a two-week tour of Brazil, I don't think the inviters knew quite how much their invitee wanted to go. What I took back home with me, however, was even more than I expected.

I knew Rio would continue to take my breath away with the seductiveness of its landscape -- ocean and craggy mountains and city buildings in incestuous proximity. I also discovered that my connectedness to Brazil was intact. One Brazilian friend told me that I had just been mentioned in a magazine article about Elizabeth Bishop, but couldn't remember which magazine.

Was I really a part of Brazilian life? I had to find the article. In the poetry section of one book store, I asked the salesperson if she had seen it, and she had. The next day, she left a message at my hotel, and when I went back to the store, she insisted on giving me her own copy of the magazine.

What surprised me, though, was how thoroughly I was getting caught up in the concerts themselves. The schedule was grueling. I was amazed at how much energy a group of 100 mainly high school-age prodigies could have on four hours of sleep. And on top of an already-demanding pops program, they were playing Mahler's gigantic Fifth Symphony, a challenge even for the most seasoned professionals.

The Youth Philharmonic was certainly a sensation. At one pops concert at an outdoor stadium in a city near Sao Paulo, thousands of people standing room only demanded five encores. The musicians had to be led offstage by guards because so many people wanted to touch them. "We were like rock stars," one astonished player exclaimed.

The biggest hit of the tour was a pounding Afro-Brazilian number called "Batukee," (ph) which the orchestra played at an outdoor concert on Copacabana Beach. They were joined by 10 brilliant young black percussionists who called themselves "Funk and Lotta" (ph) -- "lotta" means "tin can" -- who were part of the second-oldest neighborhood samba school in Rio.


The orchestra rose to some challenges no one could have predicted. At the Copacabana concert, the lights went out during Tchaikovsky's "Romeo and Juliet," but the Youth Philharmonic kept playing in the dark, 108 bars without missing a note.

I wanted them to love Brazil and was disappointed when they turned down a sightseeing tour of Rio. They were tired. They wanted more time to practice.

I worried about Brazil's impression on them when one young player looked out a bus window and gasped when she saw an inner-city kid ripping a man's pocket off his pants. We all rushed to the window in time to see the skinny pickpocket getting beaten to a pulp by the friends of his latest victim.

In all honesty, I was afraid I might get tired of going to so many concerts and rehearsals. But I found myself following with mounting involvement the ecstatic ups and frustrating downs of the Mahler performances as they evolved from city to city.

I was extremely moved by these young players' seriousness -- their commitment; the way they grappled with conductor Benjamin Zander's (ph) stunning conception. They wanted so much to do it justice, and I held my breath on those miraculous nights when they did -- when they sounded like a world-class orchestra, risking everything for a great work.

These performances are not another connection I have with a place I love for more reasons than ever.

GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz is classical music editor of the Boston Phoenix.

Dateline: Lloyd Schwartz, Boston; Terry Gross, Philadelphia
High: Classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz on his recent junket to Brazil.
Spec: Music Industry; South America; Brazil
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright (c) 1997 National Public Radio, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. under license from National Public Radio, Inc. Formatting copyright (c) 1997 Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to National Public Radio, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission. For further information please contact NPR's Business Affairs at (202) 414-2954
End-Story: Music in Brazil
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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