It has been raining spiders in a small Tasmanian town, after severe flooding prompted the arachnids to resort to an unusual escape method known as ballooning. Local trees and bushes are now covered in a vast web of silk in Westbury, near Launceston on the Australian island state, and within the folds an unimaginable number of eight-legged animals are scurrying around, trying to make sense of their new situation.
Graham Milledge, collection manager in arachnology at the Australian Museum, explained to the Sydney Morning Herald how the spiders were using their natural gifts to flee from waterlogged nests: ‘What they do is they climb up to a high vantage point—up to the end of a stalk of grass for example—and then they point their abdomen to the sky and let out a silk thread. The wind captures that and acts like a parachute and carries them off.’
‘These mass ballooning events are often associated with particular environmental conditions, for example the flooding that’s happening in Tasmania at the moment,’ Mr Milledge continued. ‘People don’t realise how many spiders there are out there until you see events like this.’
Although the scene resembles something from many people’s nightmares, the daredevil spiders involved are actually quite small, and for the most part ‘pretty harmless’, according to Mr Milledge. ‘Generally they’re spiders that live on or close to the ground, for example money spiders, which build small webs in grass and so forth. Other spiders that have been known to do it are juvenile wolf spiders, which live on and in the ground,’ he said.
Photographs of web-shrouded Westbury were taken by local resident, Ken Puccetti, who told Guardian Australia that the spiders’ silk covered an area of about 800 metres, and described the scenario as a ‘plague’.
Such scenes are rare, but not entirely unprecedented. Last May, the New South Wales township of Goulburn in the Southern Tablelands also experienced a deluge of spiders descending from the sky. ‘The whole place was covered in these little black spiderlings and when I looked up at the sun it was like this tunnel of webs going up for a couple of hundred metres into the sky,’ said local resident Ian Watson of that event.