1747: Spider Paleontology

Explain xkcd: It's 'cause you're dumb.
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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.


A time-traveller (the sphere-like thing) visits us/the present from the far future. Spiders are their current craze, much as dinosaurs are currently (at the time the comic was released) to us. The time-traveller immediately spots a spider, awestruck to see the object of its obsession in the living flesh. Since spider webs don't fossilize, the time-traveller is surprised to see the spider in a web. There was no possible hint of spiderwebs in the fossil record, from which the time-traveller gathered all its knowledge.

We, with our current knowledge, know that webs are an essential part of a spiders life. Making sense of a spiders life is practically impossible without including their webs. However, the future-people have done so until now; discovering how wrong they are is bound to become an intense experience for them.

Megan immediately connects the time-travellers realisation to our current understanding of dinosaurs: If future-people think they understand spiders, while missing something as essential (but non-fossilising) as their web, what are we missing about dinosaurs? Cueball quickly catches on, and both ask if they can borrow the time-machine to have their mind blown about dinosaurs much as the time-traveller is experiencing right now 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 - from starlings flocking to the dances of birds of paradise to lyrebird mimicry to petrels puking stomach oil. Dinosaurs would have had equally strange behaviors, but it's basically impossible to tell from the fossil record. All we know is that they had features such as display feathers, neck frills, and crests which likely played a role in mating and territorial shows.

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

Similar talking floating energy dots have been seen before in 1173: Steroids and 1450: AI-Box Experiment. They are clearly not the same time traveller as in this comic.


[A seven-panel comic featuring Cueball, Megan, and a time-traveler from the distant future, possibly from somewhere other than Earth. The time-traveler is depicted as a solid, floating black dot surrounded by six outwardly-curved segments, surrounded by small dots. In the second panel, the depiction is slightly different.]
[The time-traveler floats on the left facing Megan who is in the center facing left. Cueball is to Megan's right and also facing left.]
Time-traveler: I'm here from the distant future!
Megan: Cool! What for?
Time-traveler: Spiders!
[A close-up of the time-traveler, depicted as a diffuse black smudge surrounded by seven narrow rays with irregular dots between the rays.]
Time-traveler: We've learned about your planet's spiders from fossils.
Time-traveler: There's a whole spider craze. We have spider theme parks, spider movies, spider costumes...
Time-traveler: Such beautiful animals!
Megan (off-panel): I guess...
[Back to the time-traveler, Megan and Cueball as shown before. Megan is gesturing left, past the time-traveler.]
Time-traveler: Now we've got time travel, so I'm here to see one for myself!
Megan: Sure! There's one over there!
[The time-traveler floats over a leafless plant. A spider web is strung between the border of the left panel and the leafless plant. A spider is in the center of the web.]
Time-traveler: Woowwww!
Time-traveler: What's that giant net it's caught in?
Megan (off-panel): You mean its web?
Time-traveler: Its what?
[Back to a scene similar to the first, depicting the time traveler, Megan and Cueball]
Megan: Oh, right, fossils. So you wouldn't know about...
[In a frame-less panel only Megan is shown facing left.]
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)

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)