Would you die if you were to swallow a poisonous spider whole and alive? Would it bite your internal organs? —Anthony Gomes
No reason for arachnophobia here: Ingesting a spider, even a venomous one, isn’t really a worry, said Christopher Buddle, a spider expert at McGill University in Canada.The brown recluse spider (Loxosceles reclusa) is a venomous species found in the U.S. South and Midwest. Photograph by Visuals Unlimited, Corbis
“If you do swallow a spider, even one that’s potentially venomous, I don’t think it would have the reaction time to bite as it’s moving down the esophagus, and certainly wouldn’t have any chance once [it’s] in your stomach acid,” Buddle said.
“No spiders are known to be poisonous—which would mean you get sick if you breathe them in or eat them—but they all have venom” that’s meant for smaller prey, Buddle added. (Also see “Fish-Eating Spiders Can Catch Prey 5 Times Their Size.”)
A few spider species are dangerous to humans, including black widows and their kin and the brown recluse. (Related: “Ask Your Weird Animal Questions: Spiders and Other Animals With Bite.”)
Buddle added that spiders get a bum rap as biters, but in fact the arachnids bite people only when they’re in compressed places or surprised by us, like when you put your foot in an already occupied shoe.
“If a spider does wander into your mouth while you’re sleeping, he’ll probably just wander away again,” he laughs, unless “you’re swallowing a lot of other bugs… There might be a good meal in it.”
I would like to send a picture of a snake to know what type of snake it is and if it is venomous. —Busola Holloway, Nigeria
We forwarded Busola’s photo to Kate Jackson, a biologist at Whitman College in Washington State, who identified it as Thelotornis kirtlandii, a venomous reptile commonly known as a vine, twig, or bird snake.
“We would consider this as a snake that’s potentially dangerous to humans,” Jackson said, though humans seldom get “mixed up with them” because the snakes live in trees and eat birds.
Jackson says the snake should simply be left alone. “It’s not something that people are likely to step on in the night or put their hand on in a small place and get bitten by,” she said.
It’s easy to tell where this species gets its common names, she added. The reptile “has a way of staying very still in a kind of awkward kind of position for a snake, which has the effect of making it look like a twig,” Jackson says. (Also see “Amazing Video: Inside the World’s Largest Gathering of Snakes.”)
The snake also hunt birds “by staying still and wiggling its little red tongue as a kind of lure, and they go, ‘What’s that? A caterpillar or a worm?’ And as they’re peering at it, they get bitten.”
Tell me, can murmurations [of starlings] be also smaller groups of birds? —Shannon, Chicago
This question came from the story “Strength in Numbers, 5 Amazing Animal Swarms,” which explains the unified movements of flocks of starlings, called “murmurations,” which can involve tens of thousands of the birds.
Marc Devokaitis of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in New York said via email that scientists tend to call any group of birds a “flock” or, if they’re on the water, a “raft.”
He said there are no hard and fast rules as to what constitutes a flock, but “flocking behavior can start organically with as few as two birds.” (See National Geographic’s bird pictures.)
There’s also what’s called a “mixed foraging flock,” or a group of diverse species looking for food in the same area.
Devokaitis added that—like other words we use for groups of birds—the term “murmuration” is “more poetic than scientific.”
Indeed, we do take to flights of fancy when it comes to describing birds en masse. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, many larks are an “exultation,” a group of owls is a “parliament,” and several crows, of course, are a “murder.”