Wildlife Photographer of the Year Q&A: The spider room, Urban Wildlife category winner

Recently I was honored to have four of my photos commended in the prestigious Wildlife Photographer of the Year photo competition organized by the Natural History Museum in London. This is a major achievement for me, and not something that I take lightly. A lot of hard work, dedication, and patience got me to this point. Most photographers spend years trying to get a single photo recognized in the competition, usually without success. To have four entries selected as finalists, with two category winners, is not something I expected even in my wildest dreams. The attention from the press and the general public after the awards ceremony and the winners announcement (watch it here) was overwhelming and sometimes exhausting (especially in the case of the photo “The spider room”). Now that things have calmed down a little, I decided to dedicate a few posts to the competition; to answer some of the repeating questions from people, and provide a bit of the background story for each of my winning photos.

We start off this series of posts with Urban Wildlife category winner: “The spider room”. First of all if you have not read the full story behind this photo, feel free to head over to this post.

The spider room. Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2021, Urban Wildlife category winner. Phoneutria fera and its babies under my bed. Amazon basin, Ecuador

The spider room. Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2021, Urban Wildlife category winner. Phoneutria fera and its babies under my bed. Amazon basin, Ecuador

You can watch the part when it appears in the awards ceremony here (timestamped).

Out of my winning images, this is probably the photo that made the most impact. The public response to it was phenomenal. It went viral immediately after the awards ceremony, attracting comments from thousands of people. I got literally hundreds of messages and questions about it over social media. It seems that people either like this photo, or you really, REALLY hate it. The interesting thing is that either way, people have an opinion about it. They talk about it. It’s a conversation starter. I couldn’t ask for a better result. There is also a story behind the submission of this photo to the competition that I will mention later.

“Seriously... This was under Gil Wizen’s bed, I’m sure it might send a shiver down your spine, but when I tell you that it was a Brazilian wandering spider, a very large animal and one of the most venomous spiders in the world, you’d be more worried”

“Seriously… This was under Gil Wizen’s bed, I’m sure it might send a shiver down your spine, but when I tell you that it was a Brazilian wandering spider, a very large animal and one of the most venomous spiders in the world, you’d be more worried”

Ok, spill out the truth. Is it real?
Yes.

What is the size of the spider? It looks huge!
This is an adult female Phoneutria fera, or Brazilian wandering spider. It is one of the largest araneomorph (non-tarantula) spiders in the world. The spider can easily cover an adult human’s hand with its leg span, which is almost 6 inches or 15 centimeters. The lens used to capture the photo makes it look bigger (forced perspective).

What is this “forced perspective”?
Forced perspective is an optical illusion that makes an object appear physically different (larger, smaller, closer, or farther) than it actually is. In this case I used a short focal length wide-angle lens, photographing the spider under my bed from a very short distance to make it appear larger in the frame while still retaining most of the details of the background.

Don’t spiders have 8 legs? I only see 6!
Spiders indeed have eight legs. This spider is not missing any legs, but it holds the two front pairs closely together, making it look like it is a single pair of legs.

A wandering spider (Phoneutria fera) female guarding her babies. Amazon Basin, Ecuador

A wandering spider (Phoneutria fera) female guarding her babies. Amazon Basin, Ecuador

What is that thing on the floor next to the spider?
The spider is feeding on a cockroach, so right under it there is a cockroach leg that it discarded. However, since the online version of the photo is usually of low resolution, most people mean the black area on the floor in front of the spider – that is simply a hole in the floorboard.

How venomous is this spider?
To quote from wandering-spiders.net: “Phoneutria venom contains a wide variety of peptides and proteins including neurotoxins, which act on the ion channels and chemical receptors of the neuromuscular systems of insects and mammals.” This means the venom has the potential to cause excitatory symptoms such as salivation, muscle spasms, loss of consciousness, loss of control over muscles, priapism (yup, you read that right), and in some cases even death.

Oh no! Banana spider aka Brazilian wandering spider (Phoneutria fera) in my kitchen!

Oh no! Banana spider aka Brazilian wandering spider (Phoneutria fera) in my kitchen!

Where was this photo taken? I am worried!
The spider room photo was taken in a biological research station in Ecuador. Phoneutria spiders are only found in the tropical regions of Latin America.

How did you not set the whole room on fire?? What’s wrong with you, look at this thing!
And why would I do that? The spider doesn’t know it is in someone’s room. It doesn’t even know what a human is. Allow me to quote myself: We DO NOT burn houses just because a spider happened to walk in. It’s absurd. Just because a spider found its way into your house, doesn’t mean it’s going to go after you. Spiders are constantly busy surviving, they have no time for us. If you find a spider at home, please kindly escort it out. The spider will thank you, and both of you will be happy. No need to cause property damage and possibly hurt yourself and others in the process.

It doesn’t look like any bed that I’ve ever seen. Can we see the bed?
Yes you can! Just don’t expect too much.

The bed where Phoneutria fera was found (photo courtesy of Alex Shlagman)

The bed where Phoneutria fera was found (photo courtesy of Alex Shlagman)

This photo isn’t mine. It was taken by my colleague during our previous stay at the site in 2007 and the room has changed considerably since then, but it’s the same bed.

Do you have any behind-the-scenes photos?
Unfortunately I was alone during the encounter with the spider, so I have no behind-the-scenes photos. However, I can try to communicate the experience. After figuring out that the source for the baby spiders in my room was under the bed, I decided to crawl under it to take a closer look. Someone on twitter posted this image, either directly or indirectly connected to my spider photo, and it encapsulates the scene very well:


When I looked under the bed, this is what I saw:

Phoneutria fera under my bed. Amazon basin, Ecuador

Phoneutria fera under my bed. Amazon basin, Ecuador

And one look was all I needed. I immediately knew which kind of photo I wanted to take.

Weren’t you scared to get so close to the spider?
I was not scared to photograph the spider from up close, because it was busy feeding and did not pay attention to me. However, after photographing I decided to relocate it outside, and this involved moving the spider. I was a little concerned because this spider is extremely fast and defensive, so I moved slowly and used extreme caution.

Closeup of a wandering spider (Phoneutria boliviensis) resting on a leaf in the Ecuadorian Amazon. I got very close when taking this photo and the spider could not care any less.

Closeup of a wandering spider (Phoneutria boliviensis) resting on a leaf in the Ecuadorian Amazon. I got very close when taking this photo and the spider could not care any less.

How did you move the spider outside?
There is a simple trick for catching spiders by placing a cup over the arachnid and sliding a piece of paper underneath. It works with any spider, large or small, tarantula or araneomorph spider. This is what I did with the Brazilian wandering spider before carrying it outside to release.

You said you relocated the spider outside, but what about all the babies?
The babies were left untouched. After hatching from the egg sac, baby spiders need very little attention. In some spiders the mothers stay close to the babies to protect them, but the truth is they are independent and can take care of themselves. That is why they were already dispersing around in the room. In addition, the baby wandering spiders have tiny fangs and physically cannot bite humans, so they are harmless.

Don’t spiders go back to their nest if moved away from it? Did the spider return?
After it was released the spider did not return to the room. However, this question is justified because I have heard more than one account where a wandering spider was relocated and showed up in the same place the day after. It is possible that the spider can find its way back following chemical cues. Silk may contain important information about the individual spider that placed it, and this information can be used by the same animal or other spiders for tracking.

Did you have any similar encounters with these spiders?
I encounter members of genus Phoneutria almost every time I visit Latin America. I always get startled at first because it is a very large spider, but then I continue to observe them without worries. They are interesting animals with an important role in their habitat and we should treat them with respect.

Wandering spider (Phoneutria depilata) preying on a katydid. Photographed on the thatched roof of a cabin in Colombia.

Wandering spider (Phoneutria depilata) preying on a katydid. Photographed on the thatched roof of a cabin in Colombia.

Wandering spider (Phoneutria depilata) preying on a katydid. Limón Province, Costa Rica

Wandering spider (Phoneutria depilata) preying on a katydid. Limón Province, Costa Rica

We like the photo! Can we buy a print from you?
Of course. Contact me and I will do my best to assist you.

Can I use your photo for my super funny meme? Please!
This has already happened even before the photo won in the competition.
I had a feeling that the photo would go viral after the winners announcement, and expected the internet to have a field day using it for memes. As long as the memes are civil, do not call for violence, damage of property, or the unnecessary killing of spiders – I am fine with it.

What is the story behind the submission that you mentioned in the beginning of the post?
As mentioned in my award reception speech for “The spider room”, I actually had no intention to submit this photo to the competition. My plan was to submit another photo of a wandering spider preying on a katydid, however my good friend Ellen Woods, who encouraged me to enter my work to the competition in the first place (something I will discuss in a later post in this series), insisted that I submit this particular photo in the Urban Wildlife category. And she was spot on! So the way I see it, this is more her win than mine.

Wandering spider (Phoneutria depilata) preying on a katydid. Photographed in Colombia. This was the photo I initially planned to submit to the competition. Looking back, it would probably not have been picked up as a finalist.

Wandering spider (Phoneutria depilata) preying on a katydid. Photographed in Colombia. This was the photo I initially planned to submit to the competition. Looking back, it would probably not have been picked up as a finalist.

Why did you submit this photo in the “Urban Wildlife” category, when it shows a research station close to the rainforest and has nothing to do with being urban?
I admit I hesitated to submit the photo because of this. However upon careful inspection of the category’s definition in the competition, the text reads: “Across the world, humans have created new habitats. Many animals have adapted to these built environments, some more successfully than others. These images focus on the magic of the commonplace, the surprise of the unexpected or the wonder of the normally unseen.” This means that the category is intended for photos of animals adapting to any human-made environment. Not necessarily just cities, even if it is the first thing that comes to mind when hearing the word “urban”.

If you have any questions about my photo that do not appear in this post, feel free to leave them in the comments. I will do my best to answer them.

To read part 2 about “Bug filling station”, click here.
To read part 3 about “Beautiful bloodsucker”, click here.
To read part 4 about “Spinning the cradle”, click here.

2 thoughts on “Wildlife Photographer of the Year Q&A: The spider room, Urban Wildlife category winner

  1. I really like your nature photography and I’m happy that your work was recognized in such a spectacular way in WPY 2021.
    I did not read about public perception of the photo but I assume it is so powerful and it went viral because it is almost an optical illusion, making a strong impression of huge spider in a dirty room. When you say “I immediately knew which kind of photo I wanted to take.” I’m curious whether it means that already before taking the first shot you knew you want to achieve this illusion or whether it came only later – and when exactly, if you can remember. I sometimes realize a potential of a shot when reviewing a photo on an LCD screen of camera – and unfortunately often realize the missed potential when reviewing the photo on a PC screen and I’m very curious how other photographers develop the ideas behind their shots. Good luck with your photography and research!

    • Great question, Aleš! What I meant was that upon looking at the scene I knew that I wanted to capture it with the wide angle macro style. I shoot a lot of wide angle macro and I even wrote a series of posts about the technique (the first one is here – https://gilwizen.com/wide-angle-macro-1/). I had no intention to create the optical illusion, and in fact if you go back to the original story (the link is in the post) you’ll see that I never mentioned any attempt to make the spider look giant. The focus on the optical illusion part of the photo came only because the photo won in the competition and the media kept mentioning it in their reports.


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