Slug, Toad, Leech, Spider, Earthworm – these were some of the thirteen constellations invented in 1754 by John Hall. He was an English naturalist, but also a writer of satire, and he was poking fun at constellations such as the Giraffe, Unicorn, Lizard, Fly (Camelopardalis, Monoceros, Lacerta, Musca) inserted into the sky in his times (see the new-constellations list in The Astronomical Companion).
The shunned number thirteen was presumably part of his joke, and I wish I knew whether he had Latin names for them and what his other eight nasties were – rat, pig, skunk, cockroach, louse, bedbug? But I have only a secondary source: an old Astronomical Society of the Pacific newsletter, among the mass of paper I was uneasily consigning to the recycle bin this afternoon. And then this evening I found myself reading “Ugly Critters Get No Love,” by John Platt, in the June issue of Scientific American.
Scientists do overwhelmingly more studying of the relatively few animals that humans find appealing, such as koalas and lions. There is little funding for studies of the teeming others, many of which may be more ecologically and even economically important. And, as pointed out by the Ugly Animals Preservation Society, studies of the “mascot” species go into their habitat and behavior and food sources, vital for conservation, but for the “plain” or “ugly” ones little more is reported than their classification and measurements.
Why the human animal finds some of its cousin animals unbeautiful, to the point of repulsiveness, could be a whole other study. I as a child had spider-horror, which must have been seeded by a word here and there from adults. I’ve yet to understand why bats inspire dislike. I wonder whether other planets boast anything as improbably, ornamentally flexible as snakes – yet the fear of touching them suppurates in some people into the delusion that they are slimy. These phobias are not just European: Navajos have a horror of ch’osh, creeping things, as religious as their horror of ch’indi, the presence of dead bodies.
There are few things in nature as wonderful as the little jumping-spider that bravely faces up to you with his broad eyes; the spiderling that floats miles on the breeze from a long parachute of silk; the orb web in its steel-like strength, graph-like programming, and snowflake-like variety, especially when starred with dew. I’ll draw you a picture of Arachne, the Spider constellation, when I’ve found a place in the heaven to insert it.