TALL, SKINNY AND SHY, VYGANDAS Relys is a young Lithuanian arachnidologist who spent most of Memorial Day weekend in a state of mild shock. He was manning the desk at the first ever Los Angeles Spider Survey — which means he spent the day taking vials and bottles and cups of spiders out of young children’s hands and trying hard to identify the species. He was shocked for a lot of reasons. First, he thought almost nobody would show up with spiders and, instead, hundreds and hundreds did, forming a long line of parents and grade-school kids clutching their specimen containers. He was also shocked at being forced to identify species outside of his lab. “Usually, we have microscopes,” he said to one parent who was demanding the identification of a spider curled up at the bottom of a pill bottle; it might be a sack spider or a ground spider and he just couldn’t tell, he tried to explain. He only left Vilnius a few months ago and he’s just getting to know L.A.’s spider species. “In Lithuania, I could do this with my eyes. Here I have to go through the literature,” he said, his hand flipping through an imaginary spider book.
Ultimately, he’s just shocked to be here at all. In January, he was an up-and-coming professor at the most prestigious university in Lithuania. (“I made my Ph.D. in Salzburg,” he said, in a tone suggesting that Salzburg is the world’s capital of advanced arachnid studies.) And then his wife was offered a post-doc fellowship in biochemistry at UCLA. “I had no choice,” he said, clearly wishing he had.
Los Angeles County probably has around 500 spider species, but nobody knows for sure because no one has ever done a survey. The entomology department of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County decided to correct that by asking the general public to bring or send in spiders along with a questionnaire explaining exactly where the spiders were found. “If we collected them ourselves, we’d go to a few dozen places; this way we get spiders from hundreds of places,” Vygandas said. He and a few others will spend the next year carefully identifying each spider sample and, hopefully, coming up with a comprehensive list of spider species and a map of their habitats. The survey kicked off at the annual museum insect fair this past weekend and for the next 12 months, anyone in the area is invited to bring a spider to the museum or mail one in. Vygandas prefers the spiders be dead (a tiny bit of tissue dipped in alcohol and dropped in a bottle next to the spider should kill them quickly), but nearly everybody brought their spiders in very much alive — many with a recreated habitat of some leaves and twigs and even an insect or two for dinner. Vygandas will spend the first few days throwing out leaves and killing spiders. He expects most of the samples will be from the most common spiders, but he hopes to get at least a few of the rare ones. Only two of L.A.’s spiders are known to be poisonous to humans: black widows and South American violin spiders, and Vygandas hopes nobody tries too hard to catch one of them.
There are a lot of children in Los Angeles who are deeply fascinated by spiders and there’s no better proof than the fact that nobody mentioned the Spider-Man movie at Vygandas’ desk; nobody Ã¤ had those Spider-Man gloves that shoot a rubber dart. Instead, the children huddled, shyly, around Vygandas and listened carefully as he explained what kind of spider they caught. He spoke softly and they spoke softly, so it was hard to hear what was being said in a crowded, noisy hall. But it soon became clear that almost everybody was bringing in the same two kinds of spiders. There were a lot of daddy longlegs, and it’s pretty hard to make them exciting. But Vygandas had a little routine for the other common spider. He would look at the container and say, “It’s a false widow.” But he has an accent and he speaks so quietly that there would be a beat where nervous parents and thrilled kids thought he said black widow. One of them would say, “Black widow?” And Vygandas would say, “No, it’s a false widow. It looks like a black widow and it’s the same family. But this one can’t hurt people.” When people would then say, “Oh, it’s not poisonous,” Vygandas would look annoyed and answer sternly, “All spiders are poisonous. The question is, ‘Can it bite people?'”
After a few hours, Vygandas seemed to decide that it was good to see so many people having fun with spiders. “In Europe,” he said, “I can’t imagine people could be so excited about this.”