"Ewww," squeals a young girl, pointing a finger at a very large, very hairy spider in a glass enclosure.
"Wow, what's that!?" exclaims a young boy, cramming his nose against the glass for a better view.
Sherwood "Woody" Wilkes, director of science and technology at the Museum of Discovery and Science in Fort Lauderdale, smiles at the kids' totally different responses to the gargantuan arachnid. "That's a Goliath bird-eating spider," he then explains to their class, which is taking a tour of the museum's "Spiders!" exhibition. "It's the largest spider in the world, although this one, at six-plus inches, is only about two-thirds of its eventual length."
"Surely you don't feed it birds?" a teacher asks tentatively.
"No," replies Wilkes, "baby rats."
"Ewww," the girl says again, effectively ending that discussion.
The group moves on to a display that looks from a distance like photos of thread. Closer inspection reveals actual cobwebs mounted on black paper backgrounds. The intricate patterns are from the collection of James C. Begg, who amassed it in the early '70s by trekking through the swamps of Loxahatchee and people's back yards. He'd sneak up on a spider on its web, spray both with white paint, and press them onto a sheet of black paper held behind the web.
The spiders and webs here on the first floor are part of the museum's permanent collection but are a highlight right now in conjunction with the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service spider show on the second floor, which is full of interactive displays the kids are eager to get their hands on.
"Humor and interaction is a dynamite combination to convey information in an exhibit," says Betsy Hennings, museum interim president, as the kids scatter and begin pushing, pulling, and pressing various gadgets. One little girl tries to traverse a neon web maze on the floor without sticking to it, but most of the lines are "sticky."
Nearby a duo of boys attempts to weave a web on a computer using a program that allows them to design one by selecting the number of radial and spiral lines spiders use to build them. It's a lesson in ambush engineering, and the boys learn that spiders are marvelous builders as they watch to see whether their web catches the cyber flies and mosquitoes that zoom by.
Meanwhile, in another display area, two children rush over to check out a huge, balloonlike model, an egg sac enlarged 25 times and sliced open to show the hundreds of eggs inside. It looks exactly like the one that the brown recluse spider downstairs has recently attached to the piece of wood under which she lives, but hers is about one-eighth of an inch in diameter.
Otherwise known as the fiddleback or violin spider, the brown recluse gets attention upstairs, too. It's represented in the display called "Armed and Dangerous," which presents the four most fearsome spiders in the world. The other three are the black widow (the deadliest in the U.S.), the Sydney funnel spider from Australia, and the tropical wandering spider found in South and Central America. The wandering spider is the one you might find living up to its name by accidentally getting transported in a bunch of bananas . Day-o!
Here in South Florida, though, we're far more likely to encounter a black widow. Without prompt administration of an antivenin, the poison from a widow's bite kills quickly. At least, if you're going to go, it's relatively fast. The bite of a brown recluse, on the other hand, creates terrible sores, and ultimately the skin around the sores dies. Its venom may even cause the loss of a limb or kidney failure.
The exhibition includes all of the gory facts about arachnids but balances them by noting that while most spiders are venomous, they're not especially dangerous. They'll flee rather than confront you. And they help keep the insect population in check. Without them the mosquitoes would be way worse than they are -- if you can imagine that.