Natural History Museum puts new spin on web of old spider myths

''Spiders Alive!'' at the American Museum of Natural History opens Friday, showcasing different live arachnids including scorpions, tarantulas and African whip spiders. July 1, 2014. (Credit: Charles Eckert)

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Don't be afraid, the exotic-looking spiders about to start crawling and climbing through parts of Manhattan's American Museum of Natural History aren't poisonous -- well, most aren't anyway.

But even the ones that pack a poisonous bite can't bite hard enough to break the skin.

In fact, to hear the curators of the museum's "Spiders Alive" exhibit, which opens Friday, tell it, the many-legged invertebrates rarely bite humans.

"For forty-five years I have been studying spiders and I have never been bitten," said Norman Platnick, curator emeritus of the museum's Division of Invertebrate Zoology and whose study of goblin spiders in Ecuador is featured in a short video.

He said spiders are as afraid of us as we are of them and play an important part in the food chain pecking order.

"Spiders do their best to get away from humans," said Platnick, who is quick to note that spiders are not insects. "Being afraid of spiders is irrational. Spiders are actually handsome and essential to our civilization."

He said they prey on insects, which keeps the bug population on the ground and in the air in check.

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The exhibit runs through Nov. 2 and will allow visitors a close-up view of spider species of all sorts -- from the Chilean Rose Hair Tarantula, a palm-size version with fuzzy, pink fur and eight legs to a menacing-looking but harmless and hairless black scorpion with shiny armor-like skin.

John Fuentes, an assistant on the exhibition who will be handling the Chilean Rose Hair Tarantula, used a thin paintbrush during a recent tour of the exhibit to show how its spiky fur is released to ward off enemies.

Scientists are still trying to break down the components of the silk that many species produce for their webs and egg castings. The goal is to make a synthetic version of spider silk that could "revolutionize" the manufacturing of parachutes and bullet proof vests, Platnick said.

The venom of certain types of spiders is also being studied to give scientists a better understanding of neurological disease, he said.

Platnick hopes the exhibit goes a long way toward debunking scary myths about spiders while showing how they are useful to a world that still has plenty to learn about them.

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"It's fascinating how little we know," said Platnick, adding that just 50 percent of spider species have been discovered.

And the museum has a good amount of those, Platnick said.

It's collection of almost a million spider species, both living and dead versions, is the largest in the world and "would take at least six lifetimes to examine our collection," he said.

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