THE OLDEST SPIDER
THE OLDEST SPIDER
Just over three years ago, beneath a solitary scruff of land at the foot of the Australian wheatbelt, researchers discovered the world’s oldest living spider, “Number 16,” had died. She was 43, like me. Fifteen years older than the last spider to break the record. The team, who’d tracked and tabulated Number 16’s life since her birth, attributed her longevity to a fiercely reclusive nature; she spent most of her life alone in a secluded burrow, and rarely strayed from it. She died in October, the month of my birth.
Following its initial publication in the scientific journal Pacific Conservation Biology, news of Number 16’s historic end circulated online in a series of brief (and nearly identical) web write-ups. I read hours of them. Days, actually. The shock of seeing my own age in a de facto obituary sparked an unwieldy fascination; I craved every documented detail of this extraordinary creature’s life. Chasing my shadow in hers, scouting common causes, I sought her out, convinced our lives converged beyond the junctures in our calendars. Somewhere in their margins, unaccounted, illuminations lurked. Insights with bite.
Number 16 was born a typical trapdoor spider. To biologists, zoologists, and entomologists this means she belonged to a singular species of nocturnal arachnid with a talent for tactical survival. Branded an ambush predator, at some point in her younger days she crafted a small, tunneled hole in the ground, capped it off with a silk-hinged lid, and spent much of the rest of her life waiting for meals to wander into her scheme. Tension on the silk string she’d attached somewhere outside the lid and stretched to her hiding place beneath it triggered her attacks. The plan worked flawlessly for decades.
Still, there was a cost.
Murder, for all carnivores, is a frequent and unavoidable necessity. Number 16 could do nothing to stem this biological imperative. But unlike the leopard or the eagle, a trapdoor spider can never leave the scenes of her violence behind and rise to cleaner ground; her snare is her home and she cloisters in it, compelled to stake her existence on a cruelly efficient device with predatory impulses of its own. The site of a lifetime’s untold carnage, all of it her own making, none of it by choice, remained shut up behind the door with Number 16 in the sole space she knew how to inhabit. It offered her survival and nothing more. A leashed life. Trap your prey, trap yourself. The mechanism freely accommodates both.
We all answer to a collection of symbols. Those who know us well use a combination of letters to name us. To strangers we are defined by numbers: Social Security number, account number, statistics, demographics. Number 16 was known only to strangers. They used her as a living textbook, studied habits and history for each of her 43 years. Her tightly circumscribed life made her a conveniently accessible subject. Still, they were saddened by her death. She had become familiar; they’d recorded everything there was to know about her. Or at least, all that human observation could quantify.
A Mexican tarantula previously held the title of “World’s Oldest Spider.” She was a pet, so it is possible she was given a lettered name to go with her numbered achievement (I’ve scoured for one, but her species is all the identity internet archives provide). It is certain she was given the privilege of a protected life, her only conceivable threats being neglect or mistreatment at the hands of her owner. Number 16 sank her solitary heels deep into the Australian wheatbelt and supplanted it, day in and night out, unaided and unabetted, untouchable in her self-imposed bunker, for nearly 50 years. Perhaps that indefatigable struggle was key to her resilience. Entombed and silent within the ground, playing possum with life among the living, it may have been difficult for death to recognize her as breathing, animate prey. And that according to design. Doubtless she lay in wait for death with the same careful preparation and ready aggression that characterized the course of her own casualties.
But death outlives all creatures, and Number 16 was no exception. A wasp got her. Odds are she died in her burrow. Death by wasp is an ugly affair for trapdoors; it involves parasitic egg-laying such as one might see in a haunting sci-fi thriller. Some might say it was her due—karma and all. Some will appreciate her tragedy. Others will ask why anyone should care one way or the other. I might be one of them. But we’ve spent the same lifetime, Number 16 and I, and this makes her story inexplicably personal. There is pattern and continuity between us, across our histories. We move in concert with a world that is itself a creature of habit. Our galaxy subsists in spiral, funneling its echoes all the way down to our DNA, winding from one generation to another, glacial and reflexive, universal.
Like any trapdoor female, Number 16 nurtured offspring. Batches of them. They sheltered with her in the depths until they emerged to build traps of their own. What might they say to each other now, grown and gone, revisiting, at her passing, those formative days? Do they curse her for dooming them to the same tunnel-visioned existence—do they remember her at all?
Human children rarely forget. Sometimes we are fortunate and our minds spin nested webs in which to hide our memories—pieces of ourselves we tether close to the bone, to home. Others among us adapt. Crucial networks of our brain circuitry undergo rewiring. We develop what therapists, case workers, and psychiatrists call “coping mechanisms.” We burrow deep into consciousness and bury ourselves in seclusion, awaiting the tug of silken tripwires strung outside. We keep nocturnal hours. We lay waste to those who wander close and try our thresholds. We sleep beside the wreckage of our own hands, wary of escape, smithing armor from immolation. These are our biological imperatives. This is the way we survive.
And always, there is a cost.
Leahy, Steven. “World’s Oldest Known Spider Dies at 43, With Lesson for Us.” National Geographic, April 30, 2018, www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2018/04/worlds-oldest-spider-dies-trapdoor-spider-australia-43-animals-spd/.
Mason, Leanda Denise, et al. “The Longest-Lived Spider: Mygalomorphs Dig Deep, and Persevere.” Pacific Conservation Biology, vol. 24, no. 2, 2018, pp. 203-206, www.publish.csiro.au/pc/Fulltext/pc18015.
Meixler, Ellie. “The World’s Oldest Known Spider Has Died at the Age of 43 From a Wasp Sting.” Time, April 30, 2018, www.time.com/5259382/worlds-oldest-known-spider-dies-43/.
Threatened Trapdoor Spiders of the Avon. Northam, Australia: Wheatbelt Natural Resource Management, 2019. PDF File.
Weisberger, Mindy. “Say Goodbye to the World’s Oldest Spider, Dead at 43.” Live Science, Future plc, May 1, 2018, www.livescience.com/62452-worlds-oldest-spider-dies.html.
Laurel Miram is a Detroit-born short prose author and poet. Her work appears in Nixes Mate Review and is forthcoming in OPEN: Journal of Arts & Letters. She is the short fiction winner of So to Speak Journal's 2019 contest issue.