Anticipating the start of the Boer War, Henry Cruciform had begun his first research project related to warfare in 1899. This was his special breeding program for the so-called "African Shouting Spider", which he had imported several years earlier from the Ugly Islands, and kept as a household pet.
This spider, while it is definitely African in origin, does not actually shout. Instead, it rubs its pedipalps together in an underground burrow which acts as an amplification chamber. The burrow, which is sometimes dug by the spider, or more often, stolen ready-made from a cricket, takes the form of an exponential funnel, producing massive amplification of the noise made by rubbing the pedipalps together. The best-known Ugly Islands sub-species emits a cry which sound remarkably like "nick off", according to independent judges.
While the spiders can dig their own tunnels, this usually causes some wear on the pedipalps, and results in occasional damage to the microgrooves which generate the sound. As a result, the spiders are more successful in areas where there are large numbers of crickets of the species making exponential funnel tunnels. The purpose of the "shout" is unknown, since both sexes make an identical call, and both seem to be completely deaf. One popular common hypothesis is that the spiders actually rub their pedipalps together to make them smoother.
The spider is believed to have come to the Ugly Islands somewhere in the Pleistocene, and to have formed a small colony. Opinions are divided as to whether the spiders came to the islands on floating rafts of vegetation, or on "parachutes" of silk.
While Charles Darwin recorded "parachuting" spiders almost 100 km off the coast of South America , this is a far cry from travelling right across the Indian Ocean, but the spiders are certainly here, and electrophoretic studies have confirmed that they are all closely related to African populations which may be found in Tanzania, where they are known by the colourful local name of Funga Ndomo. The Australian spiders have, however, developed a number of local "dialects".
As has already been indicated, the "shout" of the spider depends on very fine irregularities on the left pedipalp, which is played with the right pedipalp, rather as a gramophone record can be played with a needle. As the vibrations vary, so the sound can change. With his knowledge of Germanic languages, Cruciform noted that one variant seemed to be shouting a particularly unpleasant reflection on a man's masculinity, but in Afrikaans. Unfortunately, the "voice" seemed to be that of a woman speaking through several old socks.
The breeding program was directed at getting louder and clearer "voices", which were, at the same time, more recognisably male. These spiders, released in areas where fighting was going on, would lead the Boers to think they were being insulted by their comrades, so that they would surrender, or even better, start fighting among themselves.
The scheme was a success, and the "Boers' Goats ", as they were code-named, were generally recognised to have played a major part in winning the Boer War.
During World War I, Cruciform was once more called to service to develop a strain of African Shouting Spiders which would cast similar aspersions in several German regional accents for use in the trenches of Flanders. Sadly, these spiders contracted foot-rot of the pedipalps, softening the chitinous ridges, so that they could produce nothing better than a muffled expletive.
During World War II, Cruciform, now an old man, redeveloped his German strains for use in North Africa, where they had some limited success, mainly due to a strain of spider which sounded, quite by chance, very similar to Hermann Goering. The success was limited by the sandy soil which was not conducive to funnel-building, and a complete absence of suitable crickets. The spiders had to dig their own burrows, and most died, either of exhaustion or suffocation when their burrows collapsed on them.
While he conceived it as his patriotic duty to undertake this work with all possible haste, it was not a major work for Cruciform. He continued with his explosives investigations work throughout this period, developing a highly explosive eucalyptus oil-based compound that he called nitrogum, although he did make several important contributions to the artificial insemination of spiders.
The major surprise of the project was the discovery that the spiders were "racist", preferring other spiders of the same dialect group. It was this which made it necessary for Cruciform to develop successful artificial insemination techniques in order to cross-breed the spiders, techniques which have proved to be of immense benefit in the recent polyester breeding programs.
It was probably this work during the Boer War, more than anything else, which drew the attention of the authorities to Henry Cruciform, and ensured that he would be kept extremely busy throughout World War I on secret work, much of which remains classified, even today, and so cannot be revealed here.
Australia did not use the spiders to attack enemies, and deliberately used small specimens, so they would not be seen by enemy soldiers, but there seems to have been a fear that the Australian intentions might later be misinterpreted. Reading between the lines, this appears to be the reason why almost all record of the work of Henry Cruciform has been suppressed.
One day (November 1st, 1832) I paid particular attention to this subject. the weather had been fine and clear, and in the morning the air was full of patches of the flocculent web . . . The ship was sixty miles distant from land in the direction of a light but steady breeze. Vast numbers of a small spider, about one tenth of an inch in length, and of a dusky red colour, were attached to the webs. There must have been, I should suppose, some thousands on the ship.
-- Charles Darwin, "The Voyage of the Beagle", chapter VIII.
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Last revised March 6, 2007.