1747: Spider Paleontology

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Spider Paleontology
Whenever you see a video of birds doing something weird, remember: Birds are a small subset of dinosaurs, so the weirdness of birds is a small subset of the weirdness of dinosaurs.
Title text: Whenever you see a video of birds doing something weird, remember: Birds are a small subset of dinosaurs, so the weirdness of birds is a small subset of the weirdness of dinosaurs.


This Monday comic was the first in a series of two comics that continued in the next release 1748: Future Archaeology on Wednesday. Both comic in this series have titles of a noun followed by a field of research.

A time-traveler (the black floating energy Sphere) visits the present day from the far future. Spiders are the Sphere civilization's current craze, just as dinosaurs are currently our craze. The Jurassic Park media franchise began with the first film in 1993 and the year before the release of this comic in 2016, the fourth movie Jurassic World were released with at least one more film in development. We also have theme parks and kids dressing up as dinosaurs.

The time-traveler arrives in the presence of Megan and Cueball, and tells them who it is and why it is here, to see spiders which they learned about through fossils (See the explanation of the next comic about the strange fact that it speaks English). Megan points it towards a spider sitting in its web; the Sphere is awestruck to see the object of its obsession in the living flesh, but seeing it sitting in it's web, the Sphere asks why it has been caught. Megan realizes that because it only knows about spiders from fossils, it could come as a big surprise that the spiders sit in their webs like this. Spider silk does in fact fossilize in amber (and most fossils of spiders are also found in amber because the soft body of a spider does not easily petrify). The reason we know that silk threads in amber are the spider's web is because we can compare fossils with the spiders of today. If not for the fact that we knew about spiders' webs in advance, it would be hard to say if we would have made the connection from the amber fossils. The Sphere is thus surprised to see the spider in a web since they had not understood any possible hint of spider webs in the fossil records, from which the Sphere's civilization gathered all their knowledge of spiders. Spiders have been on Earth at least for 380 million years and are still thriving and more than 40,000 species are known.

With our current knowledge, we know that webs are an essential part of a spider's life. Making sense of a spider's life is practically impossible without including their webs. However, the future-people have done just that until now; discovering how wrong they are is bound to become an intense experience for them. It should be noted that there have been multiple present-day discoveries of fossilized spiders' webs preserved in amber - however, since fossils forming like this is a rare event, it is quite possible that none would have been found (or rediscovered our own current stock) by the future-people.

Megan immediately connects the fact that the Sphere did not know about spider webs to our current understanding of dinosaurs: If a future civilization thinks they understand spiders based on fossils, while missing something as essential as their web, what is the human civilization missing about dinosaurs? Cueball quickly catches on, and Megan asks if they can borrow the time-machine to experience their own revelations about dinosaurs just like the revelation the Sphere has just had about spiders.

The title text calls back to one of Randall's favorite facts (see 1211: Birds and Dinosaurs) - that birds are technically part of the clade Dinosauria. Birds do lots of weird stuff - like starlings flocking, the dances of birds of paradise, lyrebird mimicry or petrels puking stomach oil. Randall says that for every time a bird does something weird then it is likely that dinosaurs would have had equally strange behaviors, and birds are only a small subset of all dinosaurs. So there would have been even more strange behaviors among the dinosaurs than among the present days birds. It is, however, basically impossible to tell from the fossil record. All we know is that dinosaurs had features such as display feathers (like on a Peafowl (a descendant of dinosaurs)), neck frills, and crests (like on the Dimetrodon, which lived before the dinosaur with which it is not related) which likely played a role in mating and territorial shows.

It is unclear what the Sphere is. Since it states that what they know about spiders comes from fossils on our planet, it seems likely that the Sphere is neither human nor from our planet. So most likely they are a space traveling species and not human. The appearance as a sphere may either be an indication that they did not travel in person but rather only look out at the past through the energy sphere, or it may be that these aliens are actually spheres, floating as energized objects in space. In that case this is an actual alien floating in front of Megan and Cueball. It seems like the Sphere's civilization already had the spider craze before they invented time travel, and they decided to use time travel the first time to go back to see real spiders on Earth. This also tells us that they are from so far into the future that there are no spiders left. Of course with climate changes etc. going on, that may not necessarily be too far into the future. As long as the human race (or knowledge of spiders) has also disappeared from Earth. But since the Sphere itself tells us that it comes from a distant future, the setting is not related to how fast humans and spiders becomes extinct. As is seen in the next follow up comic, there is very little left of our current civilization, and no records of spiders and their webs.

This is the second comic with special mentioning of a science related directly to spiders, the first being 1135: Arachnoneurology.

In this comic Randall manages to combine no less than three of his favorite recurring subjects with time travel, spiders and, of course, dinosaurs.


[The Sphere, a time-traveler depicted as a solid floating black energy sphere surrounded by six outwardly-curved segments) seems to have materialized in front of Megan and Cueball who is in the right part of the panel facing left towards it. The Sphere looks like this except in the zoom in from panel two. A voice emanates from the Sphere.]
Sphere: I'm here from the distant future!
Megan: Cool! What for?
Sphere: Spiders!
[A close-up of the Sphere, still depicted as a black sphere, but not perfectly round at this zoom level and also clearly with some white dots in the dark area. It is also now surrounded by seven (rather than six) narrow rays with irregular dots between the rays. Megan answers it from off-panel.]
Sphere: We've learned about your planet's spiders from fossils.
Sphere: There's a whole spider craze. We have spider theme parks, spider movies, spider costumes...
Sphere: Such beautiful animals!
Megan (off-panel): I guess...
[Same setting as in the first panel but Megan is pointing left past the Sphere.]
Sphere: Now we've got time travel, so I'm here to see one for myself!
Megan: Sure! There's one over there!
[The Sphere floats over a leafless branch sticking out of the ground. A spider web is strung between the left border of the panel (four spokes) and the branch (three spokes). A spider (almost as large as the Sphere) sits in the center of the web. Megan answers it from off-panel.]
Sphere: Woowwww!
Sphere: What's that giant net it's caught in?
Megan (off-panel): You mean its web?
Sphere: Its what?
[Same setting as in the first panel.]
Megan: Oh, right, fossils. So you wouldn't know about...
[In a frame-less panel only Megan is shown facing left while she ponders. Beat panel.]
Megan: ...
[Again a scene similar to the first.]
Megan: Oh my God. Dinosaurs must have been so weird.
Cueball: Holy crap, yeah.
Megan: Listen, can we borrow your time machine?

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I think it the first XKCD I don't get :P 13:02, 17 October 2016 (UTC)

  • I don't believe you, no-one except Randall Himself is that smart ;-) Anyways, hope the explanation I added helps some 13:40, 17 October 2016 (UTC)

I like how the 6th panel has no borders. To me it signifies the broadening of her horizons, the going beyond her previous limits, as the realisation sinks in. 14:14, 17 October 2016 (UTC)

I remember reading about a fossil of a spider with its web, but I don't remember where I read about it. I don't suppose anyone else has heard the same? (Ideally someone who remembers the source?) 15:27, 17 October 2016 (UTC)

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/science/science-news/6467024/Fossil-hunter-finds-140-million-year-old-spiders-web.html mwburden (talk) 16:44, 17 October 2016 (UTC)

Although, with no prior knowledge of webs, that fossil would not have been much help! Miamiclay (talk) 03:42, 18 October 2016 (UTC)

Other fossil spiderwebs:

http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2003/08/0807_030807_spiderweb.html http://www.amnh.org/our-research/science-news/2006/110-million-year-old-spider-web-with-insect-prey-found-preserved-in-amber/

Randall is simply mistaken here. 13:43, 18 October 2016 (UTC)

Actually not all spiders spin webs, Wolf spiders chase their prey. So 'Future Guy' could get equally confused but limited observations of just one type. RIIW - Ponder it (talk) 17:45, 17 October 2016 (UTC)

Lots of spiders do not spin webs, but they do all use silk for something. I'm pretty sure the Sphere would have been equally freaked out by a bolas spider (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bolas_spider). Nitpicking (talk) 03:20, 18 October 2022 (UTC)

Anyone think this is the character from the Steroids comic? Looks fairly similar. 16:08, 17 October 2016 (UTC)

It does seem to be the same basic design, but not identical. Of course, the whatever-it-is seen here is not even depicted consistently from panel to panel, so the differences from #1173 don't mean it's a different character, either. 19:22, 17 October 2016 (UTC)
No I do not. I have moved ref to other energy spheres into the new series category for these comics: Category:Time traveling Sphere. I also went through all series and then made a detailed list of all types of series on the Category:Comic series page. All "real" series are listed chronologically there and the type (five in one week/two over long time) are mentioned and specified. There is also know a detailed discussion on how strange this comic series release schedule is. --Kynde (talk) 23:46, 25 October 2016 (UTC)

Possibly related: Where do Dinosaurs go when it rains? - https://xkcd.com/1434/ 17:48, 17 October 2016 (UTC)

Good as a joke, but note that the visitor from future is speaking English. The idea that English will remain but knowledge about webs vanishes ... seriously? Did no one though about spiders used to download parts of world wide web in future? -- Hkmaly (talk) 13:47, 18 October 2016 (UTC)

We already have floating energy spheres and time travel. A universal translator is universally likely. — -- 19:33, 27 June 2018 (UTC)
Considering this comic is about time travel, I somehow doubt Randall was setting out to be scientifically accurate 16:17, 18 October 2016 (UTC)
He's Randall, isn't he? -- Hkmaly (talk) 23:42, 18 October 2016 (UTC)

did anyone notice that the time traveller says "your planet's spiders". It's possible that a far distant future human is living on a different planet, but it's odd phrasing. 20:03, 18 October 2016 (UTC)

What makes you think the time traveller is human? -- Hkmaly (talk) 23:42, 18 October 2016 (UTC)

Within a few weeks before this comic, Nature published a study claiming that rather than roaring, many dinosaurs may have cooed and/or quacked. I wonder if this sort of new information inspired Randall to wonder what other facts about dinosaurs we don't yet know. 21:56, 18 October 2016 (UTC)