06/03/17 – Angkor Animal Planet: Orb Weaver vs. Oh-So-Screwed Moth

It might’ve helped if I’d taken a photo with the right arm not covered in leaves…

I’ve spent three hours trying to figure out who on earth this guy is. I found him on a sima stone at a Buddhist Terrace in the Southeast Quadrant of Angkor Thom, and at first glance I go: “hey, Indra!” But Indra’s sword is longer and he’s usually standing with it, not sitting. Then I thought it might be Shiva, which would be a bit weird because Shiva goes nowhere near Theravada Buddhism, but he’s not doing the proper “dancing” motion. So I think he’s going to end up being a king or nobleman, for three reasons: first, elite folks like this guy usually carry royal daggers, not giant swords; second, he’s decked out in jewellery and earrings if you look closely; and third, the way his legs are crossed it looks like he’s lounging, which is a common motif in both Cambodia and Thailand to show elite status (Khmer art-historians, tell me if I’m wrong here).

Finding this is actually really cool because most sima stones at Angkor are completely blank unless they’re carved in the shape of a leaf or have either an arabesque-shaped thing or a lotus flower on top.

Zzzzzz…actually, these are the first things I look for when I come across a ruined piece of architecture, but just because they’re necessary doesn’t mean they have to be inspiring.
Sometimes they look exactly like tombstones and then I realized that there are 800+ years of dead bodies and cremated ashes underneath my feet.

Finding a king or elite carved on your sima stones means it was likely patronized by a specific ruler, and was constructed as an original new structure (or one built on top of a pre-existing ashram) rather than the result of a band of zealous locals deciding to build their own using pieces of stone and laterite from other buildings.

It’s hard to tell, but that’s some decently moulded masonry under there.

Ideas and theories are forming in my head like wildfire, but at the end of the day they often seem as ridiculous as the research I thought I’d do when I first started my PhD. For example, I’m starting to learn quickly that not everything built in pretty sandstone was a Buddhist Terrace. For example, I ground-truthed this beautifully-constructed altar two days ago and there wasn’t a sima stone to be found!

This one is on my postdoc excavation bucket list.
But you’ll never ever find it 😛
It’s also on my photogrammetry bucket list, which I might be able to do this year if APSARA lets me rake some leaves.

It’s a big one, too, so I not only got to photograph it and ground-truth it, but I also sat down on that ledge above and ate a few bananas to get my blood sugar back up.

I looked up for a second, and got my hair caught in this big guy’s web.

Hello friend.

The great thing with Orb Weavers is that they tend to crawl away quickly, but sometimes they get a little defensive if you get too close.

Top-center is where I got stuck – bugger scuttled over pretty quickly to defend his turf.

It turned out the entire clearing above this awesome altar was filled with large orb-weaver webs, which was very “Temple of Doom” and made the experience a little terrifying but a little more awesome. The spiders weren’t huge, but when you notice one you begin to notice them all.

I then noticed something bounce quickly: a twang in a strand of webbing about a meter to my right. A large moth had just got flow smack-dab in a Giant Golden Orb Weaver trap and was now hanging from its legs. It began to struggle for dear life, beating its wings frantically against the web, because about a meter and a half away in a small web waited its boxing opponent in the Predator-Prey games.

In this corner, the current World Champion of the Spiderweight Division, with forty-seven-thousand prey caught and killed, Orrrrrrrb Mayweatherrrrrr Junior!
Aaaaaaand in this corner, with a 28-0  Predator-Prey Bantam Butterfly Weight Division record, currently in danger of becoming a steak dinner, Moth-hammaaaaaaad Aliiiii!!!!!

(You can only do so well with your lens on manual focus when these little buggers keep moving…although in hindsight a higher shutter speed might’ve been better).

While some people might go “ewww!” and run away before seeing whatever fate might befell this poor moth, I, being the weirdo I am, opened another banana and got my camera out to watch the show.

*With, of course, the theme from Mortal Kombat playing in my head and a combination of Steve Irwin and David Attenborough narrating.*



The moth struggles intensely against its binds, which is when the Orb Weaver begins to crawl forward from its web. A form of motion-sensing camouflage, when the moth stops fluttering, the spider stops and waits.
Moving closer, the Orb Weaver begins to morph into attack mode with a full extension of its legs. Which is, coincidentally, they scare the shit out of me the most.
Going in for the kill, ready to pounce, claws outstretched, fangs protruding. The moth is struggling, but by this point it’s close enough to not care.

An intense struggle occurs between predator and prey, the line begins to bounce as the spider props itself on top of the moth and takes quick bites. Most deflect off the moth’s exoskeleton; the spider is lucky to get any good bites in on the first try because the moth still has too much energy.

After a twenty second battle, the spider retreats down the line back to its web to plan its second attack. The moth is safe, and has won Round One.

When you think of insects getting caught in spider-webs, there’s a thought of “it’s all over”. What they don’t tell you in school is that it can often take multiple attempts for a spider to kill and wrap its prey for later feasting. For a moth that big, it can take an hour to subdue it, so it’s important not to fight too hard because a moth can beat its wings faster and harder than a spider can subdue it. Short bursts are key, and the prey will eventually exhaust itself to a point where the spider can get a good lethal bite in the top of its head and begin to wrap and feed.

I watched seven distinct rounds of predator-prey action, and each time the moth got more tired. But it was a patient battle, and I had to move on to my next structure after a half-hour of dicking around watching nature do its work. I don’t know exactly what happened, but inevitably the spider won unless it was knocked off the web, and even then the moth would eventually get picked off by another spider or lizard.

A moth doesn’t usually have to worry about a giant poisonous centipede, but I do!

This was all a reminder to me that Angkor Thom, once a bustling ancient capital, is now mostly a jungle habitat that I have the privilege of being able to traverse every day while looking for ancient remains. To put it colloquially, really cool shit like spider-moth battles, and less cool shit like thorny plants (that are equally integral to the ecosystem), will only exist if I, and we, treat the environment here kindly.

Plus, at least two dozen species of snake live here…and only like three of them are life-threatening.

I know I kind of sound like a hippie, but garbage is an issue everywhere in the Angkor Archaeological Park despite APSARA’s best efforts to beautify (that word again) the place. You wander 10m off the trail you’ll find where a tuk-tuk driver decided to take a dump and stash his toilet paper, or where a bunch of tourists chucked their water bottles, or even where the local restaurant stashed their garbage. As someone who strays off the beaten path and gets to experience amazing nature daily, it’s pretty disheartening the amount of trash that lands there.

And J-VII sees it all…poor guy.

I think I became more environmentally inspired at Angkor after walking through a 10m wide pile of garbage bags underneath a layer of water bottles to get to a set of sima stones yesterday by the Bayon, but it’s important to acknowledge that Cambodia only has so many resources to deal with the crowds and a limited amount of local education on the subject. It’s up to us as visitors and tourists to do our part, as well as be good ambassadors for our own countries, and clean up after ourselves so we don’t add to the problem.

Next Entry: A weekend trip to Phnom Kulen and Kbal Spean…and maybe some minefields!

Andrew Harris



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