Over the weekend I hiked out to one of my favorite spots on campus, the same place where I photographed grass-pink orchids this summer and watched courting turtles last fall. It’s this amazing area along a lakeshore where old logs in the water have been colonized by bog plants, creating little islands of habitat. Getting out to them requires scrambling down a bank and then walking out on the newer vegetation-free logs.
While I was crouching on a log admiring the sundew and pitcher plants, a meadowhawk dragonfly (I’m not sure of the exact species) blundered into a big spiderweb next to me. I admired it for a moment, thinking I might take a photo and then free it, since the spider seemed to be nowhere in sight. Then the dragonfly twitched and the enormous spider appeared out of its hiding place.
After a second it occurred to me to switch my camera to video mode. Ta-da! I can almost hear David Attenborough narrating. You can see the spider working to crunch the awkwardly-shaped dragonfly down into a more manageable package, crumpling up its wings and abdomen.
It was hard to keep the video perfectly in focus, since I was balancing on a log and couldn’t see what I was doing terribly well. But I’m not gonna lie, this was a pretty darn cool thing to watch. What a big meal for that spider!
Finally found some Jack-in-the-Pulpits over the weekend and had fun snapping some photos of them. I didn’t realize until I got home and pulled the photos up on my computer, though, that this particular Jack-in-the-Pulpit had an inhabitant.
See the spider lurking under the lip? Clever girl! For those not familiar with them, Jack-in-the-Pulpits (Arisaema triphyllum) are very cool flowers, consisting of a spadix (a sort of spike-shaped inflorescence of flowers) covered by a modified hood-shaped leaf called a spathe. The name comes from the idea that it looks a little like a preacher in a pulpit. Here’s a slightly different angle (this one’s spiderless):
I really like the purple veining in the ones here. Back in Ohio all the Jack-in-the-Pulpits I remember seeing were solid green!
When looking for wildlife in the snow, anything ectothermic is probably not high on your list. Imagine my surprise on my last couple walks to repeatedly come face-to-face with tiny spiders dangling at eye level. Who knew there were spiders active in winter? Eventually I found one motionless on the surface of the snow, and when I picked it up the warmth of my hand quickly revived it and started it running around on my fingers.
(Not an easy thing to photograph.) Shortly afterword I found an equally tiny larva of some sort, which I would guess had fallen out of a tree. It, too, perked up and started crawling inchworm-style across my hand.
Bernd Heinrich’s Winter World, my go-to source of information about winter ecology, was no help on the spiders. However, he does talk quite a bit about geometrid moth caterpillars, and after a quick Google image search I think that could be the identity of my larva. They’re an important winter food source for Golden-crowned Kinglets.
The resilience of these little things is astounding. In warmer seasons I probably wouldn’t take any notice of a spider a centimeter long, but in winter it becomes something to marvel over.
Several times during the past week or two I’ve spotted an uninvited house guest in the living room.
(This is the best of about a dozen attempts to photograph it. You try taking a macro photograph on the floor of your poorly-lit living room using a point-and-shot camera.)
To the best of my knowledge, this is a wolf spider, family Lycosidae. The photo doesn’t give a very good sense of scale, but it’s big for a spider in this part of North America, noticeably bigger than a quarter. I pointed it out to my roommate. “Will it bite us?” she asked. When I assured her that wolf spiders are harmless (I suppose if you were persistent enough you could goad it into biting you, which might hurt, but it would be your own silly fault and it wouldn’t be that big deal of a bite anyway), she shrugged and we let it go about its business under our couch. Wolf spiders are active hunters – they don’t build webs to speak of – and having one on patrol is probably a positive thing, really, as they eat insects that we might not be as happy to have in the apartment.
This photo is at least an improvement over what I had to offer the last time I blogged about finding a wolf spider in the house, which was back when I lived in Ohio and had, like, two readers. My housemates at the time wanted the thing gotten rid of as soon as possible, so I had to snap a quick picture and then get it out of the bathroom before someone lost control of themselves and killed it. That same week I had to remove a poor innocent cellar spider from a panicky housemate’s bedroom. It’s nice to longer be living with arachnophobes.
Incidentally, this is not the same as a brown recluse, which might be some people’s first thought on finding a big scary-looking brown spider in their house. Contrary to what many people seem to think, brown recluses have a relatively small native range in the south-central U.S., and they’re probably blamed for a lot of necrotic skin lesions that actually have nothing to do with spider bites. They can be distinguished from wolf spiders by, among other things, the arrangement of their eyes – see this awesome photo at Myrmecos. You can find out more about the myths (and truth) about brown recluse spiders here (thanks to Bug Girl for originally posting this link).
In the world of unlikely epic battles between animals that may give you the creeps, much attention has been given in the past to deadly struggles between alligators and pythons in the Everglades, but my mom recently gave me a heads up about a match-up no less intriguing for playing out on a smaller scale. Click here for the most recent edition of the newsletter of the famous Boyce Thompson Arboretum outside Phoenix, Arizona, and on the right-hand side you’ll see the headline “Widow wins big: Visitors witness venomous valor.” (Further down in the article is the phrase “bemused biologists barricade bookstore.” Somewhere, someone is immensely proud of their alliteration abilities.) Apparently a baby coral snake somehow got entangled in the web of a black widow spider, and the spider actually killed and ate it. Crazy.
(image is obviously not mine, having been borrowed from the article in question)
The Arboretum is one of my favorite places in the Phoenix area, and I’ll almost definitely be paying it a visit while I’m town to visit my parents for the holiday this week. Stay tuned for photos!
Walking from one building to another this afternoon I was brought up short by a jumping spider on the sidewalk in front of me. It was just a little thing, less than an inch across, but its black-and-white coloring and its sheer boldness caught my attention.
Jumping spiders are the largest family of spiders – according to Wikipedia there are about 5,000 described species of jumping spider, comprising 13% of all known spider species. They don’t construct webs, instead actively hunting and pouncing on their prey. And darn it if they aren’t the cutest spiders you’ll ever see. They have big, forward-facing eyes, giving them a surprisingly appealing face. What’s more, because they’re so visual they’re highly curious and interactive. While I was photographing it, this guy was constantly charging and retreating from my camera lens, waving its front legs in the air, incredibly pugnacious despite being faced with a creature many, many times its size. “What? You wanna piece o’ me?”
This one is in the genus Phidippus; those eye-catching green chelicerae give it away. Eventually I stopped harassing it and it took off into the mulch. I wish it lots of luck and many delicious bugs!
Golden orb-weaver, Nephila clavipes. It’s nearly impossible to go for a walk in the woods here without encountering one of these spectacular spiders. They are huge, they are colorful, and they like to build their massive webs across trails right at face-level. (My hand is in this photo to provide some scale.)
Their name comes from the fact that the silk of their webs is gold-colored. The coloring is faint when you’re looking at individual strands, and I can only make it out in really good light, but if you’re interested today’s post on The Shell and Mantle includes a spectacular photo of golden fabric woven from their silk. In any case, I generally find myself paying more attention to the spider herself than to her web!
I Googled “hair on spider legs,” curious about those bristles, and as far as I can discover their purpose is to help sense vibrations in the web. Anyway, their colors and patterns are amazing. The only thing I don’t like about them is walking into their webs – I’ll be striding down a trail through the woods, lost in thought, and suddenly I’ll have a mouthful of spiderweb and be checking frantically to make sure its builder isn’t crawling on me somewhere. They aren’t dangerous at all, but still, no one wants three inches of spider crawling on their neck.
I forgot to check whether she had any males attending her. One or two of the much smaller males will often hang out in a female’s web.