Sunday, 15 September 2013

Joseph Banks and the spider

Upperside. Abdomen on left, head on right.

This tiny*, shiny, spiny orb weaver is a common species in NE Queensland. It occurs along forest edges and lush gardens along the east coast as far south as the Tropic of Capricorn.

Map generated from data held by Atlas of Living Australia

It was the first spider species to be described from Australia. Joseph Banks collected a specimen in 1770 while HMS Endeavour was careened on the shore at what is now known as the Endeavour River, Cooktown. Five years later, Danish zoologist Johan Christian Fabricius published a description of it in his Systema Entomologiae. He named the spider Aranea fornicata.

(You can read the Systema Entomolgiae online at the Biodiversity Heritage Library**)

Underside viewed from the rear

Underside viewed from the front

Here is an excerpt from a letter to Fabricius in which Banks records the spider's discovery. The letter might shed light on the origin of its scientific name.

We set out to collect plants from the margin of the Forest. The Captain urged us to go further into the countrey to see if it differd from what he had seen. I said Stuff that for a game of Soldiers. Tupaia has seen Crocodiles in the Mangroves and I myself witnessd a flight of Batts as large as partridges. I suggestd to the Captain that if he were so Desperate to see it, he might go himself. He could call upon his Crew to accompany Him. He mutterd about the Boat and how the Crew were engagd in its repair. I kept counsel. These Days the Captain is much vexd by mention of That Incident. When I once raisd the matter in jocular fashion, he had scowld and said in his quaint rustic Manner, 'All t'bloody Way from Plymouth without so much as a Scratch on t'hull. I'd like to see You do that, you posh southern Plonker.'

I sent my Assistant ahead as we collectd, for not only does this Countrey have Serpents, fierce Lizards and Rats of prodigious Dimensions, but it also has Noxious Vegetation. Yesterday, the Captain encounterd a tree that stung 'like a thousand flying Wasps'. He might not have said 'flying'. His dialect is often too Broad to understand. I said that as he had been planning to use the pluckd Leaf in his Ablutions, it was best to discover this unpleasant Quality sooner rather than later.

[Transcriber's Note: The next sentence is scratched out]

The Captain laughd heartily at this Whimsey and insistd that he would leave the Botanising to myself from now on.

At the Forest edge, I observd fine Butterflies, one of them markd in green and black and much like a Sparrow in size. I commanded my Assistant to capture it. He usd a Slingshot. I have securd the fragments and will present them to the Royal Society on my Return.

There were also many Spiders. One Species was of monstrous Appearance and as big as the Boat's wheel. It gave me the Willies.

[Transcriber's Note: This is likely to be a species of golden orb weaver, Nephila. Nephila edulis was described by the French naturalist Jacques Labillardière in 1799. It was the second species of spider to be collected in Australia.]

My Assistant picked up his Slingshot but I feard that would irritate the Creature. I told him to fetch a Musket. A Cannon would have been better, but he was only one Man. The Captain came too see what requird the use of such a Weapon and was much amusd by our distress, which reinforcd his notion that were were 'nobbut fancy land-living soft-

[Transcriber's note: The rest of the word is unreadable].

When I pointd to the 8-legged Leviathan spreadeagld in the middle of a Web behind him, he let out a Shriek that sent the Batts flying from the Forest and a String of Oaths that made his Sailors blush like English Roses.

I then noticd another spider in the bushes. This was miniscule in comparison. So my Assistant shovd it into a Bottle. In doing so, his hand brushd against a Leaf of the Plant that the Captain had encountrd earlier. When my Assistant describd the Pain, I realisd that 'flying' was not the Adjective the Captain had used. We agreed that we would not Speak of this Again.

I remain etc

Joseph Banks 

* It's not that small

** If you click that last link, which takes you to the library's front page, be prepared to spend a lot of time exploring.


Denis Wilson said...

Good to see that Cook was prepared to speak "plainly" to the might powerful Sir Joseph Banks.
That is hilarious, Bronwen.

Snail said...


I'd long wondered why it had taken so long to describe the Australian spider fauna. It's not as if they're difficult to find. And now we know!

NanaJude said...

laughing here AGAIN :)

So good to see you on form.

Snail said...

I don't know why people are laughing at this --- it's a serious historical and scientific study.

Anonymous said...

Oh its hilarious. I have come back to read it 3 times and shared it more than that. Thanks! Cynthia