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Friday, July 3, 2020

The benefits of spider-watching

I get a lot of emails about spiders. All are wonderful, but some are particularly special.
Robin wrote to me about watching Pholcus phalangioides:  Daddy long-legs (Australian name) or Cellar Spiders (US name).



I'll let Robin tell her own story (with her permission).

________________________________


I’m so glad to have tripped over your blog!!!

I didn’t give much attention to my spiders when gardening, except to try not to upset their webs. I’m not even sure how many types of which kinds of spiders lived in my garden. Having been a neat freak my entire life left me with few creepy crawlers. I have a very large garden which makes up for my lack of bugs inside. 

In 2012 I was diagnosed with MS, and over the years have become less and less able to clean “my way.” I have had to allow some of the rooms in my house to be “closed doors.” 😢

My husband of 34 years, bless his loving heart, did his best to keep my ground floor, living room, kitchen, bath, and master bedroom up to snuff. I lost him in February to kidney failure. In my grief, I just didn’t care about the house 🏡 at all. (It’s not “that” awful, but to me...ewww.

I have very small amounts of strength (I’m rarely awake more than 5 hours daily), and my only chore is feeding my cat. I have aides come in to tend the rest. One comes for my shower, another does my errands like groceries, banking, & laundry. I’ve yet to find one that will clean the house without grumbling. 
Sorry for the background info...
In any case, I’ve always loved spiders 🕷, especially in my garden! Yay 😁!!!

BUT, I’ve become fond of 4 spiders that live in my bathroom. I’m sure I have many more in other unused rooms, but have trouble getting to these rooms, being in a wheelchair. 

I’ve figured out that 3 are female and 1 male. I’ve discovered what molting is. This completely freaked me out, as my first thought was my friends were being eaten by larger spiders. Nope, they just grew up. Two females are very large now, scary large to any visitors! I DO warn them before they use my restroom. 

The third female has one more molt before she will be able to breed. (This is my guess, but seeing these 4 lovelies many times daily, I am pretty positive.)

The fourth, I thought died several times. Just when I’d given up hope of ever seeing “friend spider” again, he’d show up in his regular web, as if nothing happened. It’s taken 2 years, and long searches for him when he goes on a walk about. He has simple webs to get to each of the 3 females.

I am quite excited because my largest female has a sack of spiders on her... I wasn’t sure if it was that, or dinner being prepared for later. Over a few days, (I’m crazy bad with time) I realized it was indeed, eggs. I’m unsure how long until they hatch, but I can see lots of legs appearing inside.

My concern is why she would decide her web to be safe, as she knows me, she knows I come 'n go often, she’s about 3 inches from the floor just to the left of the door jam, under the sink, far under the light switch. I realize their brains are far smaller than ours, but I’d assume the safety of her youngsters would be high on her brain function list... she knows I stop 'n visit every time I go into the bathroom, having to make a sharp 90 degree turn to get inside, having big clunky wheels taking the entire doorway. When they do hatch, I’ll have no ability not to run them over on my way to the toilet. 

She IS beside the cabinet under the sink, might she hide in there to keep them safe?
Any ideas?
Any idea how long til they hatch?

My male spider was larger than the females, but now, the females are a bit larger than him. I watched him wonder from gal to gal, staying a whole day, once female he stayed on her web for two days. 

Originally, I thought it was a larger intruder, coming to eat one of my 3 friends, and almost swatted him to save my friends. I decided to (see what happened) let nature take its course. They (mainly he) wandered up 'n down, doing a dance (or puffing up to scare her away without a fight), after his two days with female #2, he disappeared, and my friend was still alive and well. Two days later, he was with spider #1 for a day. Then a long trot to the opposite corner of my bathroom, in the windowsill, there he was, checking on #3. He didn’t stay long, maybe because she was still too young?

The following day, my missing spider, whom I’d given up hope of ever seeing again, was firmly hanging in the same web he’d been in everyday for months (the back of the bathtub wall, hanging from an unused towel bar).

I don’t “keep” spiders, and never had any until my house got dusty... whoever does any cleaning does remove cobwebs and spiderwebs (except in the bathroom). 

My roof sprung a leak in this bathroom, so I’m assuming they arrived to save themselves from wintering outside (I live in Chicago where winters are pretty nasty!! Cold, ice, ice storms, fierce wind, as our nickname is “the Windy City 🌃,” windchills can be below zero regularly, some days hitting -40 Fahrenheit, whiteout blizzards bringing 2-27 inches of snow ⛄️.) Seemed logical to me that they’d prefer my bathroom to outdoors. 

That’s my story, and these are my buddies.

Sincerely,
Robin

_____________________________________
My reply:

Thank you so much for such a fascinating email. You have certainly had to face challenges way beyond what most people could even consider. I am so pleased that you have found the joys of not being a perfect housekeeper - the main one being that you get to observe spiders.

I'm so glad also that you are not freaked out by molting any more and find it a fascinating thing to observe. Once you get to know your individual spiders, they open up a whole new world to you on their little stages. One male and three females sounds about the right ratio that I would have in the kitchen normally - and the male does his rounds. You're certainly making very close observations. And your largest female has an egg sac! You've probably got another week or so before they hatch. Have you got a very bright torch which you can use to watch them even during the day? You'll see a lot more with a torch, especially the modern bright white light torches.

Your female is very low down. I wouldn't worry about the young going on the floor. I'm almost never seen a daddy longlegs on the floor. They usually head up to ceilings. But most of the young will disappear anyway, and I don't ask questions where because I suspect that they have become sibling-stew the victim to some other predator and I don't like to think about that.

The dance you describe between the male and female fascinates me. I can see that they are twanging the web at each other - the way they communicate because they can't see each other. Their eyesight is really weak but their sensitivity to air movement, and especially to the web, is very strong. 

What I wonder is whether there is a pattern to the messages they are strumming out. I've read of small predatory spider, the Portia species, twanging the webs of spiders who are their main prey. They keep changing the pattern until they send a message which is the equivalent of either a male signalling to the female or of prey caught in the web - the researchers didn't know which. When Portia gets the pattern right, the prey spider comes out and is grabbed. I've seen something similar with our white-tailed spiders when they prey on our most common house spiders here in Eastern Australia, the black house spider. I've lost quite a few of my favourite pets that way which means the white-tailed spider is one I don't welcome. But I still can't bring myself to kill them.

It is logical that the male daddy long-legs are actually using a specific pattern to communicate with the female to say that it is a male of the same species, not some kind of prey caught in the web to be eaten. But I've never observed it close enough nor often enough to be able to say whether there is a pattern in what they're doing.

If I lived in Chicago, I'd be venturing indoors too! But our daddy long-legs are all indoors or around the house, and we certainly don't have extreme conditions like that. I suspect in Chicago any that were still outside would soon be frozen and dead.

______________   Thank you, Robin! _________________________

Friday, June 5, 2020

Wolf spiders near my home - so happy!

I have been sent a number of photographs of spider burrows found in Castlemaine over the last few weeks. I am delighted that they are the burrows of one of my favourite spiders, the Garden Wolf Spider (Tasmanicosa godeffroyi formerly Lycosa godeffroyi; family Lycosidae). I couldn't resist the opportunity to wax lyrical about them again.

Wolf spiders were so named because their method of hunting was thought, by someone with a great imagination, to resemble that of wolves.


This is my favourite Garden wolf spider, Theresa, who starred in my book, Spiders: learning to love them. Garden wolf spiders make large borrows and can be seen in them if you creep up carefully.




  Theresa in her full glory, out hunting near her burrow.

The burrows have a circular entrance with the exact diameter of a large wolf spider abdomen, just over a centimetre. They have no door, but tend to be decorated with leaves and twigs held in place with silk. The burrows descend for 10 to 15 cm and will then travel for about the same length horizontally. The female will put a thin film of web across the entrance to the burrow after she has mated.

The females are up to 27 mm body length while the males are a few millimetres shorter, but with stronger markings. They are a timid spider. When I would sneak up close to photograph them, they always descended backwards into the burrow unless I approached very slowly and gently.

Wolf spiders are night hunters with reasonably good eyesight. The front two of their eight eyes are
proportionately very large. Free-range hunters like the wolf spiders and jumping spiders use their
eyesight, hence the need for larger eyes.


The eye pattern for wolf spiders identifies them as family Lycosidae (the lycosids).

Lycosids have their eight eyes in three rows. The lowest, first row has four small eyes, in a line. The second row has two large forward-facing eyes which have reasonably good sight for a spider. The third row consists of a pair of slightly smaller eyes quite far back on the side of the cephalothorax. two large front eyes

Jumping spiders also have the two prominent front eyes - equal to the best eyesight of any arthropod - but their eight eyes form a curved line around their heads. Shown on the cover of my book, this North American Phidippus mystaceus has four prominent eyes with two more small eyes on either side of the head, continuing the line.


In contrast, web-building spiders can usually only see light and dark and shadows, detecting the world through the web and air movements with their extremely sensitive hairs. They have six or eight small eyes, depending on the family.


Theresa had a male visitor. They have stronger markings than the females.

The Garden Wolf Spiders will sit at the entrance to the burrow at night waiting for prey to pass. During mating season, mostly spring and summer, the males will head off to find a female, and that is when they will enter your house. It is rare to see a female inside. Although their bite is not harmful to humans, it can be fatal for dogs and cats. However, as a timid spider, you rarely hear of a pet dying from a spider bite.

Once you have found a burrow, the best way to see the spider is to approach gently at night with a bright torch. The wolf spider eyes will reflect the light. You can attract them to the surface during the day with the grass stalk inserted into the burrow entrance. Wolf spiders love the sun. On a sunny day, if you approach the burrow very carefully from a few metres away, you can often see the spiders sunbaking at the entrance. The female will also sunbake her egg sac. Under the film of web across the entrance of the burrow, she will hold the spherical white or pale blue sac in her hind legs and slowly turn it in the sun.

Theresa covered her burrow a bit and then held her egg sac up to the sun, turning it with her hind legs. You can see the legs in this image. She is head down in the burrow.

If the female heads off hunting, she will carry the egg sac attached to her spinnerets at the end of her abdomen. Once the spiderlings have hatched, they will spend a week or two clinging to their mother’s back. Although the first brood may be smaller, a mature wolf spider will carry enough babies to almost completely cover her. If any move onto her eyes she’ll use the small appendages at the front, her pedipalps, to roughly brush them aside much as a windscreen wiper does on a car.


Theresa with young on her back

One of the most exciting afternoons of my life was watching a group of spiderlings that I had been observing since I first sighted the egg sac being spun by Theresa. It was a hot day with a very light breeze. Most of the tiny creatures left Theresa’s back and crawled up a small plant. They lifted their minute abdomens to the breeze and released a filament of silk. They let go of the plant and floated off into the distance. One landed about ten metres away. I marked her landing spot. I was able to follow her for the next two years. Like Theresa, she produced multiple broods of young.

Theresa's spiderlings ballooning. They are just tiny specks of spiders.

The vast majority of the hundred or so spiderlings who ballooned that day would not have survived the next 24 hours. Those who did land safely and manage to avoid predators would have had a very small chance of reaching maturity without being eaten by one of those horrible creatures known as birds. Any burrow of a mature wolf spider is the home of a great survivor.

Theresa of my spiderlings didn’t last many more weeks. Her tragic ending was orchestrated by a White-winged Chough. This was the last thing she saw.

Vale Theresa.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Mummy Long-legs and The Huntswoman





At the end of the bath there is a shelf. And on this shelf are pots of ivy, a perfect habitat, I have now discovered, for spiders.

There has been one daddy long-legs (probably Pholcus phalangioides, family Pholcidae) or another in residence behind the pots for years. There was a cupboard spider (Steatoda grossa, family Theridiidae) under the right hand pot for over a year. She'd come out each night and disappear each day.

A few months ago, there was a huntsman (I suspect she was Isopedella victorialis, certainly family Sparassidae) wandering around. I thought he (the wanderers are almost always males) looked a bit fat and then got fatter. I realised that it was a female ready to lay, and took the screen from the bathroom window so she could get outside. She was no longer slim enough to slip through the gap through which she had almost certainly entered.

The Huntswoman disappeared. I assume she had left, but then a fortnight ago, I noticed her peeping out from the gap between the pot and the wall. I shone a torch into the gap only to see The Huntswoman releasing a mass of squirming babies from her egg sac. 


Within a few hours the bathroom was flooded with tiny little huntsmans racing around like little kids do and then suddenly stopping in exactly the same leg position as grown up huntsmen. They were drop-dead cute! I counted 80 knowing I hadn't included them all. Many swarmed over the edge of the shower.


And so the last week or so has meant being careful when entering the bathroom, dodging tiny spiders dropping on invisible threads then climbing up again. I took the screen from the window hoping The Huntswoman and young would find their way out. 

The daddy long-legs had been resident behind the ivy pots for over a year, having had two lots of babies, so I call her Mummy Long-legs-12 (joining a long list of breeding females). She had many male visitors. I was very fond of her and worried because she was suffering from a lack of insects this year. She had become very thin.

Suddenly she had a smorgasbord of baby huntsmen exiting their nest via the back door. I counted six bundled up in her web as she became fatter and fatter.



But then a few days ago, Mummy Long-legs was just a shell. The Huntswoman had made a meal of her.

The Huntswoman started to look frail as well. I decided to remove the pots and collect her in a glass and put her outside. I then cleaned away all the detritus which had resulted from Mummy Long-legs' long stay.

Only one baby huntsman has wandered into the house and eventually she was low enough for me to reach and take outside. The others have either found their own way to the window or come within my reach. Mostly they hang out on the ceiling. There are only seven left.

I wrote in Spiders: learning to love them that it is a spider-eat-spider world out there. It has upset me to see that it is a spider-eat-spider world in my bathroom as well. Reality isn't perfect!

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Sex in the bathroom - arachnid style

It's been a long time since the last blog - I did not expect such a great reaction to my book The Memory Code, then I went straight into writing the companion book, Unlocking The Memory Code. I still love my spiders and watch them every day, but I have been neglecting this blog. I have lots to add from the last season. But first, tonight's events:

I went to have my shower. As always, I checked Daddy-long-legs under the shelf. I suspect that she is soon to be a Mummy-long-legs. She had a very enthusiastic male making a pass at her from a few centimetres away. By the time I had finished my shower, he had won her over. I grabbed the camera just in time to photograph the act.


I call her Ivy-long-legs because she lives behind the ivy pot plant.

I'll update as soon as I see the next episode in Ivy's life. 

Love my spiders!



Friday, June 9, 2017

Master spinners of silk: the Orbweavers

The following article was published in Nature News, Midland Express, 6th June 2017.

Local writer Dr. Lynne Kelly shares her love of spiders and knowledge of two local species of Orbweavers commonly found in the Castlemaine region.



Left: Garden orbweaver in her web at night. Right: Golden orbweaver in her web by day with a tiny male approaching from above. Photos taken by: Dr Lynne Kelly

I adore spiders. I used to be an arachnophobe but knowledge cures an irrational fear, slowly at first. Then one day I watched an orbweaver spin her web from start to finish. That was the day I became a spider-obsessive. In the Mount Alexander Shire two varieties of orbweavers dominate – the large golden orbweavers who stay on their webs all day and the slightly smaller garden orbweavers that spin in the evening and scamper to hide in the foliage at dawn.

We have a few species of garden orbweavers. They are all in the Eriophora genus, distinguished by two prominent projections near the front of the abdomen. Garden orbweavers usually remove most of their web before dawn, re-absorbing the protein in the silk to use again. A single reinforced strand is left across the gap between bushes or trees in the hope that it will still be there the following evening. If that strand is broken, the spider will point her abdomen skyward and release a fine filament of silk. In even the slightest breeze, this silk will catch on foliage and she will rush across, back and forward, to reinforce the mainstay of her web. She will then drop to the ground and attach an anchor. She’ll rush up again to spin the radials and a spiral outwards. From the edge of her nearly complete web, she will then circle back towards the centre laying down the sticky spiral. Having worked tirelessly for nearly an hour, she will rest, head down, waiting for her prey.

Unlike the garden orbweavers, the huge golden orbweavers stay on the web all day, constantly repairing and reinforcing it. It is not the spider which is golden but the glow of the silk when it catches the sun. All the individuals I’ve seen locally are the Australian Golden Orbweaver (Nephila edulis). Discarded debris is left in the web above the spider to confuse the birds. Male garden orbweavers are only marginally smaller than their females but the males of the golden orbweavers are tiny by comparison [see above photo on right]. Although the males of most spider species will survive their sexual encounters, the Nephila males sacrifice themselves in their final act. Having produced a golden egg sac, the female will then die with the first frost.


For further reading, Lynne’s book, “Spiders: learning to love them” (Allen & Unwin, 2009) is an excellent resource for those interested in finding out more about these amazing creatures.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Identifying a spider from a photo

I get sent a lot of photos which people hope I can identify. I love getting them - I only wish I could do better on identifying. If they are common Australian spiders, I have a chance. With thousands of species identified in Australia alone and many more thousands yet to be described by science, my chances of recognising a spider from a photograph is small. When they come from other countries, I am often struggling to even know the family.

The problem is made worse because the photographs often don't show me what I need to know and the senders don't include the necessary information. I need to know where the spider was photographed - not only the location but whether it was associated with a web (really important), near houses, in a burrow, in dry bush or wet forest and so on. With the photos, most are blurry. As I need to see details like the hairs, that makes life difficult.

The eyes have it

But most useful of all are the eyes. Almost every spider photo is taken of its back. Spiders are often identified to family level from their eye pattern.

Today's photo included the eyes! Rushil Gupta sent me three photos of a spider to identify. The first gives you an idea of the entire photo, and the smallness of the spider in it. The next three are zoomed and cropped. [Click on images to see them better.]


The shape suggests a few possibilities. An arachnologist might be better able to leap to conclusions, but it is too blurred for me when I zoom on the spider:


This is clearer, and I am getting a good idea. But I still can't see what I need.

 

And the really useful one! I have the eye pattern. It has a large front pair of eyes ... jumping spider or wolf spider or lynx spider? The photo is clear enough to see the very strong spines on its legs, which indicates probably a lynx spider (family Oxyopidae). But it is the eye pattern which will clinch it - and Rushil's photo shows them.


A great site for the eye patterns of the common families is Bugguide:


This is found at http://bugguide.net/node/view/84423 (or click on the image). It shows the Lynx Spider family eye pattern to be:


Bingo! NOT! I jumped (pun intended as will be obvious soon) to conclusions too fast! Fortunately some experts jumped in - thank you Lizzy Lowe and Alan Henderson. The two little eyes under the large anterior median eyes aren't there!

I thought that I could see spines on the legs which is why I headed for lynx spiders. Clearly, I judged that wrong too.

Try again: This is the eye pattern of the jumping spiders, family Salticidae. So Rushil's spider is definitely a jumping spider.



From the bulges on the end of the pedipalps at the front, I would guess that he is a male wandering in search of a female. Now I need to hear back from Rushil to know what country the spider comes from. I can work out the size from the image!

UPDATE: Rushil tells me that he is in India. I'll wait for the experts to see if they can tell me more.

CONCLUSION: I am really good at loving spiders and observing my locals. I am no good at ID unless it is one of my locals - much as I would love to be and will keep trying.
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Thursday, January 26, 2017

Zoe's golden orb weavers

Zoe Stanford showed me a photo of a strangely coloured spider. The only possibility seems to be a golden orb weaver, Nephila edulis. (Click on images to see the detail.)


Zoe let me know of a new young golden orb weaver who had arrived. I asked her to take a series of photographs to show the way Nephila build up their set of debris above them on the web to act as a confusion for predators. This is the sequence she sent.





This is the final image of the spider, her web now full of junk.


Unfortunately, she has built her web in a place which had no protective foliage nearby. After a severe storm, Zoe found her spider dead in her web. So sad!

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