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Predator or prey? An arachnologist explores the ecology of Spider-Man villains

What does science say about who would win in a fight?

In celebration of everyone’s favorite web-head, July is Spectacular Spider-Month at AiPT!. We have a series of amazing articles in store for the month. Movies, television, gaming, and of course comics will all be covered with great responsibility as we honor one of comics’ greatest heroes.

Spider-Man is known for having quite a few animal-themed villains in his rogues’ gallery. Some, like Human Fly, are relatively minor, while others, like Doctor Octopus and the Jackal, are major enemies. But why them and not other animalistic antagonists? Are these matchups true to nature? And what other animals might inspire thrilling, new foes?

Turns out, there’s a whole branch of science that studies who can beat a spider in a fight. Let’s take a tour through Spidey’s menagerie of villains, and see who the data says should have the upper hand.

About 30% (27 of 85) of Spider-Man villains listed on the Marvel Database are animal-themed. This doesn’t include most of the spider-people that Spidey fights, but the list seems comprehensive otherwise. So, we’ll group the remaining villains according to their (animal’s) evolutionary relationships, and go through each in turn.

Image credit: Marvel Comics

Antagonistic arachnids

Tarantula

Science says: Underappreciated!

Themed after the heaviest and strongest of the spiders, Tarantula was never particularly threatening to Spider-Man. Real tarantulas, however, will happily overpower and eat other spiders, including members of their own species. In one study of desert arachnids, other spiders made up 15% of a tarantula’s diet.

Scorpion

Science says: A worthy foe!

A former private investigator subjected to a mutation experiment, Scorpion has been a longtime villain — and that checks out! Spiders and scorpions are often in conflict in the wild; not only do they compete for prey, they often try to eat each other.

And the winner isn’t ever set in stone. Some studies suggest the scorps win out, while others have the spiders coming out on top every time. That ongoing, uncertain feud is perfect villain material.

Credit: Yann Henaut

Insidious insects

Beetle

Science says: Underappreciated!

This one’s tough — there are 400,000 species of beetle in the world, and they can be wildly different. Some are herbivores, some are voracious hunters, some don’t even fly. In general, beetles (and the  Beetle) tend to be strong and heavily armored, and spiders don’t eat them often. A more specialized beetle (say, with a bombardier beetle’s acid spray) could be a tough fight.

Human Fly

Science says: Overhyped (even if they aren’t very hyped as is)

If Harlan Stillwell had given Human Fly some DNA from one of the many weird and impressive flies, maybe there’d be something scary here. Larva of parasitoid flies burrow inside living spiders, growing until they burst out as adults. Robber flies are hyperaggressive aerial acrobats. But house flies? Just spider food.

Shathra, the Spider-Wasp

Science says: Vastly underappreciated!

Spider-wasps have evolved for one purpose — to find and capture spiders. They can sniff out a spider from a distance, and easily sting and paralyze the victim. Which, of course, then gets eaten slowly by the wasp’s larva. Spiders have basically no defense but to hide. Shathra deserves to be a much bigger enemy than she is.

Image credit: Marvel Comics

Swarm

Science says: A worthy foe?

One-on-one, spiders are pretty good at taking out bees. Crab spiders even attract bees to their flowers for a quick demise. But an entire Swarm working together could be a different story.

Spider-Queen

Science says: Overhyped? Mostly confused.

I was ready to talk about how ants are the tiny bad-asses of the arthropod world, to the point that spiders dress up as ants to avoid being eaten. But the power Spider-Island‘s Spider-Queen‘s is to control any human with the “insect gene,” which she tries to use on Spidey. Spiders, though, are not insects; not even closely related. Let’s skip this one.

Cruel cephalopods

Squid and Doctor Octopus (and Lady Octopus)

Science says: There ain’t any research here — these animals likely never see each other.

But there is a spider that lives on the ocean’s edge, and octopuses (though not squid) can walk along the shoreline to pick off stranded animals. If they were to meet, think I’d bet on the octopus — all it takes is one tentacle to latch on, and the spider wont be able to escape.

Malicious mammals

There’s a lot of mammals — they’re, for some reason, the most popular animal theme for Spider-Man villains. Let’s rapid-fire.

The Cats: Black Cat, Puma & The Dogs: Jackal, Man-Wolf

Science says: Oddly enough, worthy foes!

Cats and dogs can both easily end a spider with one bite. But bites from certain spiders can do the same right back! In nature, this would be a (rare) contest of speed!

Silver Sable

Science says: Underappreciated!

Sables are, by virtue of being in the weasel family, angry little gremlins that eat anything. Spidey’s got almost no chance — so it’s strange how often the two work together in the comics.

Image credit: Marvel Comics

The Big: Grizzly, Gibbon, Rhino, Kangaroo

Science says: Probably too big to ever really interact with a spider besides squishing it by accident.

The Rodents: Vermin and White Rabbit

Science says: Underappreciated.

Rodents can eat small spiders, big spiders can eat rodents. The built-in animosity could make for a good, long feud.

Reptile rapscallions

Chameleon & Lizard

Science says: Worthy foes!

Both reptiles would normally be the predator, but with some luck and planning, even tiny jumping spiders can take down a sizeable lizard! It’s rare, but well-documented. You’ve got a chance, Spidey!

Devious dinosaurs

Stegron

Science says: ???

Spiders first evolved 300 million years ago, beating stegosaurs by an easy 150 mya. And only one of the two made it to the modern day.

The Birds: Killer Shrike & Vulture

Science says: Vastly underappreciated!

Birds are one of the major sources of spider deaths! Some spiders have taken to disguising themselves as bird poop out of fear. Vulture might be a bit of stretch, as they’d only ever eat a spider by accident, but crows? Sparrows? Toucans? There’s more than enough for a bird-themed villain group–and real birds of different species will work together to hunt! Call ’em The Frightful Flock.

Image credit: Marvel Comics

Honorable mention

While Mysterio is not animal-themed, I can’t leave out that scientists have already figured out exactly how to trap a spider in a virtual reality world.

Future villainous directions

There are also quite a few unexplored organisms that would make killer Spider-Man foes. Remember Cordyceps, that fungus that turns ants into zombies? Well, it can infect spiders too!

Wikimedia Commons

And there are plenty of other arachnids that have yet to show up: vinegaroons have scorpion-like claws and can spray acid, and camel spiders are outrageously fast and are voracious eaters.

With a little attention to the scientific literature, the Spider-Verse has no fear of running out of villains.

AiPT! Science is co-presented by AiPT! Comics and the New York City Skeptics.

Thank you for joining AiPT! during Spectacular Spider-Month! Be sure to check back in every day for more Spider-Man content including interviews, features, opinions, and more!

Credit: Marvel

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