Dr Fiona Cross spent her childhood in Tauranga terrified of spiders.

After a teacher warned her about the dangers of the native katipō, she became scared of anything with eight legs, running screaming from even a daddy long-legs.

Twenty years on and she has a doctorate earned from studying mosquito-eating, jumping spiders in Kenya, and her fear has transformed into an obsession.

"When you start looking for spiders you start seeing these little worlds. Little worlds of discovery and inspiration," she explains.

Advertisement

With a background in psychology, before switching to zoology, Cross says she never thought she would be interested in anything with a brain as small as a spider.

But after a series of lectures from University of Canterbury spider expert Professor Robert Jackson, Cross says she became fascinated with how spiders could perform tasks normally associated with larger-brained animals, such as making plans and deceiving their prey.

When an opportunity came in 2006 to study jumping spiders in Kenya with Jackson, Cross also jumped at the opportunity, and has visited times since, living there for up to six months at a time.

One discovery during her visits was that the mosquito-eating spider prefers the species of mosquito that carries malaria - something Cross' mother was afflicted with while growing up in Africa.

Asked to pick a favourite spider, Cross points to the Portia Africana, a small jumping spider, which Jackson and Cross discovered during their research is able to count and one which she insists is quite cute close up.

"They are like little teddy bears. They have all these little tufts of hair."

Th jumping spider is only be found in Kenya, but there is a large amount of diversity in spiders in our own backyard, including other varieties of jumping spiders.

A passionate science communicator, Cross enjoys sharing her love of spiders with young women, taking them spider hunting with her.

"They have told me afterwards that this [spider hunting] was so liberating, because women aren't supposed to be interested in spiders," she says.

Advertisement

Cross describes her relationship with spiders now as having turned from an absolute fear to an obsession - one she wants to share with those of us still afraid of the daddy long-legs above the fridge.

Spider facts

There are about 38,000 known species of spiders in the world, but scientists believe many more are yet to be discovered.

New Zealand has only one native venomous spider- the katipō. Only the females bite, but bites are unlikely because of the creature's shy and non-aggressive nature.

Katipō are more rare than kiwi. It is illegal to deliberately kill them or collect them.

New Zealand has about 1100 named native spider species.

You are probably never more than a metre away from a spider.

A web of spider silk with strands as thick as a pencil could stop a Boeing 747 jumbo jet in flight. Scientists still cannot replicate the strength of a spider's silk.

Jumping spiders can leap up to 40 times their own body length. The human equivalent would be someone jumping 70m.