Spiders spin into the Field


Superhero spurs web of interest in arachnids :::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::

photo courtesy of the Field Museum of Natural History Spider-Man meets Anthony Nomellini, 4, of Chicago at the Field Museum's spider exhibit.

While "Spider-Man 2" wows 'em at the box office, the Field Museum is wowing visitors with a look at the real thing.

Anthony Nomellini, 4, of Chicago, chose formal attire for a visit with his personal superhero-full Spider-Man costume, mask and all. "This is probably the best day of his life," says his father, Anthony. "He just lives and breathes Spider-Man."

In addition to the two-legged star, the museum is showing off the eight-legged variety as well. Some visitors prefer celluloid. Patti Belanger of Tinley Park says one of her sons liked bugs-until they got to the museum. He thought the exhibit was scary.

"We find that most people are enthralled by, but also repulsed by, insects and spiders," says Jim Louderman, a real spider-man who serves as collections assistant at the Field. "But what we try to do is show people that spiders and insects really aren't anything to be afraid of. Most spiders won't hurt you."

The spiders are a temporary addition to the museum's ongoing Underground Adventure exhibit. The show "shrinks" visitors as they walk into the exhibit so soil-dwelling animals, insects and spiders just below the earth's surface appear 100 times larger than life.

The Field's spider-woman Petra Sierwald is a permanent fixture at the museum. She has been researching arachnids for 25 years and is one of only 400 such world experts. "The moment a movie comes out, even if it's 'Arachnophobia' on television, the next morning I get the call: 'There is this spider in my bedroom, and I have these slippers there,'" Sierwald says, holding a long-jawed spider in the palm of her hand. "And I think, 'Yes, I've seen the movie, too.'"

Sierwald says she tries to watch every movie that includes spiders to answer questions. The most common: "Can it bite?"

Spidey 2 is generating a new question, though. In the movie, the fictional superhero gets into trouble when he runs out of silk. It could happen to a real spider, too, Sierwald says.

"For spiders, it's a serious problem," she says. "No silk means no drag line, no safety belt and no eating because they can't catch their prey."

For Spider-Man, no silk means no holding onto runaway trains, no swinging from building to building to catch criminals and no shooting webs to catch falling people. The problem, she says, is that Spider-Man isn't into silk recycling, unlike real spiders. "Spider-Man has evolved his spider powers, but he has to be more careful with his silk," Sierwald says.

The fictional superhero, along with real spider expert Louderman, will be hanging around the Field Museum from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Aug. 4-6 signing autographs and showing off spiders. Free with admission to the Underground Adventure exhibit. Tickets are $17, adults; $14 seniors and students; and $8, children ages 3-11.

The Field Museum is at 1400 S. Lake Shore Dr., Chicago. For more information, call (312) 665-7100 or visit www.fieldmuseum.org.

Erin Walsh, Medill News Service

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