The Wetland Explorer – Fear the Fear

This article appeared in the Great Bend Tribune on Sunday, February 17 as part of the monthly KWEC column, The Wetland Explorer.

What are you most afraid of?  The dark?  Spiders?  Snakes?  Things that go bump in the night? 

Many of the common fears expressed by humans relate back to animals.  You are probably aware of arachnophobia (the fear of spiders), but are you familiar with some of these other common animal phobias- Ophidiophobia (snakes), ranidophobia (frogs and toads), selachophobia (sharks), ornithophobia (birds), ailurophobia (cats), cynophobia (dogs), apiphobia (bees)?  Reports have shown that in North America, up to 50% of the population has arachnophobia.

Why are these fears of various animals so common in humans?  Most scientists conclude these fears result from evolutionary processes.  In short, early mammals able to identify particular threats (such as spiders, snakes, etc.) better survived, thus more likely passing those traits to their offspring; this is the basis of the most basic definition of evolution.  Ultimately, fear of these animals was one method of survival for humans.   

Unfortunately, often times our fears of various animals can become roadblocks to us enjoying nature or even appreciating our environment.  And, our fears can also lead us to lash out against a particular animal even when that animal has not done any harm to us.  I fear (pun intended) that too many of us let our fears unjustifiably disconnect us from nature.  It is often said that people fear what they do not understand.  But, unfortunately, the opposite is true as well, that people do not understand what they fear.

Crossing into the psychological side of this topic, interesting studies have shown humans’ dispositions to fear some of these animals.  In one study, psychologists showed adults and three year-old children images of snakes or spiders hidden amongst objects of similar colors.  They also showed them pictures of various objects hidden amongst pictures of snakes or spiders.  Both adults and children identified the hidden snakes significantly faster than the other hidden objects.  Many other studies have shown similar trends, and it has been concluded that people appear to show an innate ability to identify things like snakes and spiders, and they show a predisposition to learn to fear snakes if they have a bad experience or if they are exposed to a negative portrayal of them in their homes or even in the media. 

Another experiment focused on how particular fears can distort perceptions.  In one trial, people who were admittedly afraid of spiders were shown a live spider.  They were then asked to draw a line representing the length of the spider they saw.  Most of the participants drew lines strongly overestimating the real length of the spider.  Some drew lines over three times the length of the actual spider.  This distorted perception relates back to evolution in that perceiving something as either larger or more threatening might help one be more cautious if encountering it again.

At the Kansas Wetlands Education Center, we often hear the phrase “the only good snake is a dead snake”.  In this case, surely a person’s fear is getting in the way of understanding.  Snakes play a crucial role in prairie and wetland ecosystems.  They are control nuisance species such as rodents, and they are a food source for many higher predators.  Snakes are probably more scared of humans than we are of them, and the only reason they bite is when they feel threatened.

In gaining understanding, we also gain appreciation and respect.  There is no reason every snake (or spider) should be killed just because we don’t understand or appreciate them.  Similarly, we have found at the KWEC that parents are usually the ones with much greater fears of certain animals than their kids.  Misinformation and misunderstanding by the adults typically is the root of children’s fears.  Kids, on the other hand, have often more open minds.

On Sunday, March 2 at 2:00pm, the KWEC will offer an excellent look at one of the most feared animals: spiders.  Dr. Dustin Wilgers, assistant professor of Biology at McPherson College, will present a free program called Close Encounters of the Eight-legged Kind.  The program will help you build an understanding of spiders and their intricacies and oddities.  In the end, you may still fear spiders, but you will come away with a better appreciation of these important creatures.  Make plans to attend this program and open your mind about these fascinating animals.

If you have questions about the Spider program or any other upcoming programs at the KWEC, please call 877-243-9268.

About Curtis Wolf

Curtis Wolf is the site manager at Ft. Hays State University's Kansas Wetlands Education Center (KWEC) at Cheyenne Bottoms. Curtis received a Bachelor of Science degree in Wildlife and Fisheries Biology and a Master of Science degree in Biology at FHSU, studying freshwater mussels. Before taking the job at the KWEC, Curtis was a biology instructor at Barton County Community College in Great Bend.

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