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Snake and Spider Fears and Phobias – Instinctive or Learned

Hello, Frank Indiviglio here.  A great many people are fearful of snakes and spiders, often to a seemingly unreasonable degree, and without any prior negative experiences.  Researchers have long sought to discover if people possess an inborn, instinctual aversion to these creatures, or if learning is involved.

Living Near Venomous Animals

Boy with SalamanderMy own view has always been that it makes sense for people living in the tropics to avoid all snakes and spiders, and I’ve observed that this lesson is taught to children early in life in many places.  

There are still over 10,0000 snakebite deaths yearly worldwide, and in areas of high species diversity it is nearly impossible to distinguish all venomous from harmless species (in recent times, 2 renowned herpetologists were killed by snakes not know to be venomous).  On my first research project in Costa Rica, I foolishly believed that I would be able to identify many of the snakes and spiders I might encounter.  My first nighttime walk through overgrown scrub quickly taught me otherwise!

Another important point to bear in mind is that animals, especially snakes and spiders, are drawn to homes and gardens due to an unnaturally high density of prey (rodents, insects) and in search of shelter.  During the dry season in Venezuela, I collected numerous treefrogs, bats and spiders indoors.

Snakes and Primate Evolution

So, based on my experiences, I leaned toward a learning-based explanation.  However, recent work at UC Davis has revealed a possible evolutionary explanation to snake aversion among monkeys and, it is theorized, humans. 

Fossil and DNA evidence indicates that large snakes may have been among the first serious predators of modern mammals, and were possibly the driving force behind the development of keen eyesight in Primates. The evolution of the Primate vision system seems linked very closely to fear and vigilance receptors in the brain.  As Primates became better at spotting snakes, snakes developed more effective camouflage, and so on. 

On Madagascar, where large snakes are absent, Primates (lemurs) have not developed the excellent vision possessed by their relatives on mainland Africa.

 Most primates do indeed react with “instinctive” fear upon seeing a snake for the first time.  However, I have noticed that a great many creatures, ranging from rodents to elephants, treat novel objects with caution, however harmless they might be.

Research Involving People

Experiments involving people have yielded mixed results.  Studies conducted at the Universities of Virginia and Queensland has shown that snakes and spiders draw far more attention from human observers than do other potentially deadly animals or objects. 

But many of us have (or, at least, I have!) seen toddlers squeal with delight when presented with a spider or snake…yet they will become quite scared if they see an adult express fear. 

One thing I’ve noticed is that snakes and spiders have “odd shapes” (except to herpers!)…I wonder if this draws attention; and anything that moves suddenly can startle an observer, especially if it is new to that person.

Teach Them Early

It seems we must wait awhile for answers that may help people overcome their fears and view our cold-blooded friends more reasonably.  Until then, please do your part to introduce the next generation to nature early…the little guy pictured here will have no excuses for disliking herps – I’m starting him out on amphibians, and working my way up the “fear scale”!

Further Reading

You can read more about some of the research mentioned here.

 Please write in with your questions and comments. 

Thanks, until next time,

Frank Indiviglio

4 comments

  1. avatar

    My parents aren’t really the “scream at spiders” type. They’re outdoorsy, and so am I. But spiders still freak the hell out of me. I mean, I don’t actually freak out if I see one, but I have very strong feelings against touching them. I don’t know where I would have gotten that, if it’s learned. Snakes don’t bother me though. I love snakes. I want to love spiders, too. There aren’t any poisonous ones around here. But it’s just so hard to even bring myself to touch one unless it’s tiny.. and looking at certain ones just makes me want to curl up and shrink away. It’s just so unbelievably repellant. Like nothing else. I guess maybe it is the unusual shape.. the unusual legs, unusual movement.. but there are so many strange creatures, and no insects or other critters bother me like spiders.

  2. avatar

    Hi Frank great article. My cousin taught me not to be afraid of snakes when I was young however I was born afraid of spiders and haven’t changed my mind since and I am now 67. I just think they have too many legs I also am afraid of scorpions and centipedes, and have no desire to overcome it . snakes I still like. Alison

  3. avatar

    Thanks for the feedback, Alison, Best, Frank

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About Frank Indiviglio

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Being born with a deep interest in animals might seem unfortunate for a native Bronxite , but my family encouraged my interest and the menagerie that sprung from it. Jobs with pet stores and importers had me caring for a fantastic assortment of reptiles and amphibians. After a detour as a lawyer, I was hired as a Bronx Zoo animal keeper and was soon caring for gharials, goliath frogs, king cobras and everything in-between. Research has taken me in pursuit of anacondas, Orinoco crocodiles and other animals in locales ranging from Venezuela’s llanos to Tortuguero’s beaches. Now, after 20+ years with the Bronx Zoo, I am a consultant for several zoos and museums. I have spent time in Japan, and often exchange ideas with zoologists there. I have written books on salamanders, geckos and other “herps”, discussed reptile-keeping on television and presented papers at conferences. A Master’s Degree in biology has led to teaching opportunities. My work puts me in contact with thousands of hobbyists keeping an array of pets. Without fail, I have learned much from them and hope, dear readers, that you will be generous in sharing your thoughts on this blog and web site. For a complete biography of my experience click here.
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