Entomologist Slammed For Euthanizing 'Puppy Spider'

Piotr Naskrecki's blog post about finding a "puppy-sized" spider in the wilds of Guyana went viral — then the hate mail and death threats started coming in. NPR's Scott Simon talks to Naskrecki.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

"The Sound Of Little Hooves In The Night." That's the title of a recent post on a blog by Piotr Naskrecki. But he's not writing about horses. He studies insects and spiders.

PIOTR NASKRECKI: The South American Goliath birdeater is the largest spider in the world. Their leg span approaches 30 centimeters, so it's nearly a foot. And they weigh up to 170 grams, about as much of a young puppy.

SIMON: Oh, that phrase young puppy, it went viral and it earned Piotr Naskrecki a lot of unwanted attention over the Internet. He joins us now from the studio at Harvard University, where he works at the Museum of Comparative Zoology. Thanks very much for being with us.

NASKRECKI: My pleasure.

SIMON: You began to get a lot of very aggressive email from people who didn't like the fact that you study something like the South American Goliath birdeater, and to do that you've got to kill it.

NASKRECKI: Yes, I have received quite a bit of negative reactions to the fact that we scientists have to collect specimens occasionally. I would like to emphasize that we never do it lightly and this is probably the most unpleasant part of our job. But unfortunately, there's really no other way to look inside of an organism. We need to dissect things to see how their internal organ works. The easiest way to get the DNA is to grind the muscle of an organism. But in addition to that, we collect specimens not knowing what they will be used for. The museum where I work has 21 million specimens collected over the last 200 or 300 years, and they're still being studied. And we are still answering questions that would have been unconceivable when the specimens were first collected.

SIMON: And I guess we should clear this up too, the South American Goliath birdeater is not an endangered species?

NASKRECKI: Oh, God, no. No, it's a very, very common species. It's actually very common in the pet trade. I went to a local pet store to buy some dog food, and the first thing I see is that Goliath being on sale. And they are in no way endangered. What is endangered is their habitat.

SIMON: So you maybe should've likened it to a rat, not a puppy?

NASKRECKI: Probably. But I like puppies, so that was the first word that popped into my head.

SIMON: You don't study them in the same way though, right?

NASKRECKI: (Laughter).

SIMON: No because you were getting dog food and the...

NASKRECKI: I definitely do not. Actually I'm a great supporter of Humane Societies. Both my dogs were adopted from a shelter, and I just absolutely adore puppies.

SIMON: Piotr Naskrecki, entomologist and photographer. You can see the Goliath birdeater spider on his blog, The Smaller Majority. Thanks very much.

NASKRECKI: Thank you very much. It was my pleasure.

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