June 30, 2021KR OnlineNonfiction

Plasticity

The express elevator zips me up to the thirty-second floor of my office building in downtown Chicago. I take this ride every day without thinking twice about the astounding fact that I am ascending straight into the air. Today is no different. It is a Tuesday morning in May: 8:58. I watch the floor numbers flit by. 30. 31. Ding.

Today is different. Overnight, someone has decided to throw my office a spider-themed surprise party. Every window, every single one, is decorated with a giant spider web, each at least two feet long, and with it comes a half-dollar-sized spider.

As I walk to the community kitchen to get coffee, I count the spiders. 10. 11. 12.

I am taken by them. A disruption in my routine, they ask me to think about something other than my inbox. They remind me with a zap of clarity—surprise!—that I have otherwise spent the morning without noticing much around me.

On my way to work, I sat on the train and read the headlines on my phone. With my head bowed, I willfully shut out the other people smashed in next to me. When I accidentally looked up and caught someone’s eye, we both quickly returned to our phones, as if caught in some horrible act. Noticing each other was too much.

The spiders I notice.

“Oh yeah, those are the famous Chicago flying spiders,” someone says when I point them out in a meeting. He is nonchalant. We are discussing the online magazine I manage. It is a new job, and I am new to working downtown. New to zipping up in the elevator. I am not nonchalant. These aren’t just any old spiders. They are famous and flying!

Back at my desk, I look it up online. The first thing I find is a letter given to guests at the Magnificent Mile Hilton that starts with “We request that you do not open your windows in your suite during this time to avoid the annual migration of High Rise Flying Spiders. A Chicago Phenomenon.” It is like a ringmaster announcing the next act—now entering the center ring, the high rise flying spiders!

Issued a couple years ago, the letter caused a panic, and I find a number of articles about the spiders, which I discover are Larinioides sclopetarius, more commonly known as the bridge spider or gray cross spider. They are part of the orb-weaving spider family. In one article, Jim Louderman, collections assistant for insects at the Field Museum of Natural History, says that the spiders are native to cliffs and gravitate toward higher ground, and in the city, high rises are as close as they can get.

They have adapted to the city. Actually that isn’t quite right, my research tells me. A better way to say it is that they have demonstrated a type of adaptation: behavioral plasticity, which is the ability of an organism to be flexible and respond to changes in its habitat without changing its genotype. In a paper titled “Individual behavioural consistency and plasticity in an urban spider,” published in the journal Animal Behaviour, researchers find that the bridge spider has colonized urban areas extremely successfully, in part due to a high degree of behavioral plasticity. There is a terrifying photo of cobwebs lining a roof—so thick it looks like sheets of fabric decorated with polka dots: spiders.

How do the window washers handle it, dangling on the side of the building? Perhaps they feel a kinship. Job description: can’t be afraid of heights, or spiders. That’s probably a tough one.

The window next to my desk faces south with a view that includes the lake to the east as well as miles and miles of roads adhering to a grid-like pattern that is a mathematician’s dream. It is now adorned with a spider rebuilding her web.

As I sip my coffee, I look closely. She has a plump, bulbous abdomen with markings like an ancient cave painting. In the brown and gray dabs I see an owl. I see a tree. I see a horse’s head. Her pin-like legs are hinged, and she tucks the lower half under slightly as she holds tight to the web.

As she builds, she moves clockwise from the outer edge to the center. Each line equidistant from the last. How does she measure? I do not see anything that suggests she is comparing line to line; she simply keeps moving forward, around and around, the blueprint stored in her small, small brain, which knows more, or at least something more, than I ever will. A mathematician’s dream.

The silk seems to magically appear. I’ve been reading Charlotte Joko Beck, who reminds us that although we often want to run from the present moment, we must learn not to. I try to stay here. But, how long can I gaze out this window before it is clear I am not doing other, more important things?

Team Meeting at 11:00.

Afterward, lunch in the community kitchen. Topic of discussion: what is and what is not a sandwich? A hot dog? A wrap? A burrito?

The spiders are not found just in Chicago, despite the Hilton trying to sell them as a tourist attraction, but all over the northern hemisphere. And they don’t exactly fly; that is a bit of sensationalism. When they are very small, they spin a type of balloon that catches the air and floats them up and up.

It is not only the wind carrying these spiders along, but also electrostatic energy in the earth’s atmosphere. The silk balloon picks up a negative charge from the air, which repels the negative charge from the earth’s surface. It zips them straight up and here to my window on the thirty-second floor. Like humans, they have harnessed electricity. Ding.

Do the spiders know the difference between a building and a cliff? They are at the mercy of those who change the habitat around them. Even their common name is based on human construction—the bridge. Now, the high rise.


 

Chicago was built on a flood plain. Rather than rethink that plan, in 1856 the city council decided to elevate the entire city four to fourteen feet using hydraulic jacks. And it did. The Briggs Hotel, five stories tall and weighing twenty-two thousand tons, continued to operate as it was lifted into the air. Later, Chicago architects invented the steel-framed skyscraper to double down and ensure the city could survive in the mud.

Humans are also a very plastic species.

If not the spiders, it is the buildings the tourists come to see. They stand in line for hours to make it to the top of the Willis (Sears) Tower. They walk the streets of the Loop with their camera phones pointed up. They buy posters of the dramatic skyline. It, too, is striking. It, too, can cause one to stop—with a zap of clarity—and really look.

Biologists would not use the term plasticity in quite that way . . . for naming ourselves. However, it seems to fit. We, too, are very good at colonizing new areas. We are highly flexible and respond to variation in environment in creative and sometimes obnoxious ways. We install irrigation in the desert, build seven-mile bridges, and place whole communities on stilts. A flood plain is no obstacle.

The difference: unlike the spider, we do not believe we are at the mercy of the habitat around us but rather that it is at our mercy.

With the dramatic transformations expected to occur on our earth over the next century, an organism’s level of plasticity may determine if it can survive. Originating over 140 million years ago, so far the bridge spider has done OK.

Meeting.

Look at screen and think about more coffee. Email. Email.

Get more coffee.

Check social media.

Look at screen.

My eyes have been bothering me. Each afternoon at 3:00, I do eye exercises with Julia, the marketing manager who sits next to me. We roll our chairs away from our desks and turn to each other. We call it eye o’clock. One of the exercises is to look at our hands, slowly moving them closer, then farther away. Closer, then farther. I take in my short fingers and unkempt nails.

Then I turn and look out at Lake Michigan. Before the spiders arrived, the lake is what I spent my breaks gazing at. I try to follow the 20/20/20 rule for good eye health: look away from the screen every twenty minutes for twenty seconds a distance of at least twenty feet.

I do these exercises because my optometrist told me we are just asking our eyes to do more than they were designed to do. There is a name for this: Computer Vision Syndrome, with symptoms like headaches, blurred vision, and neck pain. To some degree, it affects most people who use computers at least three hours a day, which is a lot of people. In a paper about the condition the authors write that it is likely it will “reduce productivity at work, whilst also reducing the quality of life of the computer office worker.” Our species is so clever. How are we using our ingenuity?

The lake is a counterweight to the city. It seems to have been placed there to balance things out. It is larger than the city, so much larger, with a total surface area of 22,400 square miles. Chicago is 234 square miles—ninety-five Chicagos would fit side by side on the lake.

If you really look at it, I mean really look out at the massive expanse of water that changes color like a mood ring and follows a northern path into what feels like oblivion, then it is hard to sit with. The word sublime comes to mind. The rest of Beck’s quote on living in the present moment explains that we must stay here even if what we find is “a feeling of being humiliated, of failing, of abandonment, of unfairness.” We are meant to remember our insignificance, to recognize our attempts at permanence as meager. But we don’t want to. Making our way through the city, we don’t notice a lake that is really a period. An end to our long, run-on sentence. It says no and stop. It says rest. Smashed in next to it, noticing it is too much.

Instead, we compete with the lake, trying to pave over our failure. According to the Northern Illinois Planning Commission, between 1970 and 1990 there was a 40 percent increase in developed land area in the region, while the region’s population increased by only 4 percent. Overall, from 1900 to 1992 urban areas increased six-fold.

Like the bridge spider, the blueprints in our human brains urge us to create, to use the tools and materials we find to build and invent. To learn and discover. To improve and reinvent. It is beautiful. Until we forget to look at the lake. Really look at it. Until we forget to look at the spider.


Evolution of land use in Chicago 1900, 1955, 1992

Phone meeting.

The spider on my window has eight eyes. Two on either side of her head and four crowded together up front. With all of these eyes, what does she see? Not much actually. Her eyesight isn’t very good. She can see motion. The eyes in the front help her focus on her prey. From the window, she doesn’t take in the lake. She doesn’t see me at my computer. She sees with her body, attuned to every vibration on her silk violin. The wind a maestro.

Email. Email.

Take stock for tomorrow.

A little after 5:00, I say goodnight to Julia and grab my bag to take the elevator back down.

Tomorrow, when I come in, the spiders will still be here. A week will go by and I will keep watch over them. Then another. The spiders will remain hanging quietly throughout the summer and into fall.

It will be around the third week that I stop observing them closely. The surprise will have worn off. The spider at my window will become like an orphaned balloon stuck in the ceiling fan from a party two months ago. Back to my regular routine—train, zip, coffee, meeting, lunch, eye o’clock, email, email, meeting, train ride home—I will forget to look.

But for now, I am still enchanted. I gaze at the web before heading out. The sun is still up, but as it dims even more spiders will come out of crevices where they have been hiding, waiting out the day. More and more. People flood out of buildings, pushing onto the trains and streets, trying to find their way home. They don’t look up. But high above, on the buildings lining the Loop and the lakeshore, spiders numbering in the thousands are casting a web over the city.

 

Sources

“Computer vision syndrome among computer office workers in a developing country: an evaluation of prevalence and risk factors.” P. Ranasinghe et al. BMC Research Notes 9 (2016). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4784392/

“Electric Fields Elicit Ballooning in Spiders.” Erica L. Morley and Daniel Robert. Current Biology 28:14 ( July 23, 2018).

https://www.cell.com/current-biology/fulltext/S0960-9822(18)30693-6?_returnURL=https%3A%2F%2Flinkinghub.elsevier.com%2Fretrieve%2Fpii%2FS0960982218306936%3Fshowall%3Dtrue

“Evolution of the Chicago Landscape: Population Dynamics, Economic Development, and Land Use Change.” Edwin S. Mills and Cynthia S. Simmons. Growing Populations, Changing Landscapes: Studies from India, China, and the United States. National Academy Press, 2001 [Illustration on page 7].

“Individual behavioural consistency and plasticity in an urban spider.” Simona Kralj-Fiser and Jutta M. Schneider. Animal Behaviour, 2012.

http://ezlab.zrc-sazu.si/uploads/2012/06/Larinioides-AB-2012.pdf

“Mag Mile Hotel Warns Guests about ‘Flying Spiders.’” CBS Chicago, May 7, 2015.

https://chicago.cbslocal.com/2015/05/07/mag-mile-hotel-warns-guests-about-flying-spiders/

“Raising the Chicago streets out of the mud.” David Young. Chicago Tribune, December 18, 2007.

https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/politics/chi-chicagodays-raisingstreets-story-story.html
“Spiders attacking downtown high-rises? Not so fast.” Mick Swasko. RedEye, Chicago Tribune, July 13, 2012.

https://www.chicagotribune.com/redeye/redeye-spiders-attacking-downtown-highrises-in-chicago-20120713-story.html
“Spiders Can Fly Hundreds of Miles Using Electricity.” Ed Yong. Atlantic, July 5, 2018.

https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2018/07/the-electric-flight-of-spiders/564437/
“Becoming a Squinter Nation—Glasses Can Correct Near and Far, but What about Those Screens in Between?” Melinda Beck. Wall Street Journal, August 17, 2010.

https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052748704868604575433361436276340