When it’s time to mate, the male spider plucks on the strings of the female spider’s web, letting her know that he’s not lunch but a prospective paramour. He performs a little dance to attract her–sometimes offering a token of affection, like a fly–and then copulation commences. If he’s the Australian ratback, he’ll do a somersault onto the stomach of his mate, who’ll then eat him. If he’s a brown widow, he’ll also flip onto her stomach, but she’ll crush him instead of devouring him, breaking his eight hairy little legs before wrapping him up in silk.

“He never gets out of there,” says Dr. Petra Sierwald, a curator at the Field Museum who’s helped put together its new exhibit Spiders! “He dies in that silken package.” The exhibit, which runs all summer, features dioramas, interactive computer games, a giant fiber-optic floor web, larger-than-life spider models, and live spiders, including the Madagascar orb weaver, a spider the size of a dinner plate.

Sierwald says that we are never more than three feet away from a spider. “We’ve got these critters everywhere.” Luckily, few species will bite humans. Probably the most dangerous in the U.S. is the brown recluse, whose poison can cause tissue to die in about seven minutes, leaving the victim with rotting flesh. There’s no antivenin, and some people bitten by the spider have lost a limb. But for the most part, says Sierwald, spiders shouldn’t be feared. “They also live on this planet and have the same problems–making a living and bringing up babies.”

Spiders! will run through August 25 at the Field Museum of Natural History, Roosevelt and Lake Shore Drive. Admission is $5 for adults, with an additional $3 for admission to Spiders! Call 922-9410 for information.

–Gwen Stacey

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/William Bruger.