Monday, September 19, 2011

Meet the regulars - spring has sprung

This will be my first season in Castlemaine. Amazing creatures appearing from every nook and cranny! I have chosen a few to be my regulars for the blog. Hope they all make it through the season. (Click on images for a larger version.)

Let's start with the show-offs - the orb weavers. The golden orb weavers (Nephila sp.) are still in their egg sacs, none yet hatched. The garden orb weavers are busy weaving their magic. The three I have found are all Eriophora pustulosa, not the same species as I had previously. These all have three little bumps on the end of their abdomens. The largest is Pustula, just a corruption of her species name. She lives on the back verandah.

Archer lives under an arch covered with ivy pelargoniums.

The third, of which I hope at least one makes it to breeding, is the smallest, but makes the most perfect webs outside the studio where I write, which I call my garret. So she is Garreta. Tonight, she was taking it a bit easy, not showing off like her fellow Eriophoras.  Still gorgeous!

I have lots of my very favourite spiders, the black house spiders (Badumna insignis) and their smaller cousins, the grey house spiders, Badumna longinqua. I'll only introduce one although I go out and talk to lots of them every night. You'll be pleased to know that none of them reply. Stonewalled has got me fascinated. Black house spiders build funnelled webs, usually with two entrances or more, into a retreat. Stonewalled has done all that, her retreat going far back into the stone wall along the front of the house. But she has pieces of casuarina needles from the garden above her neatly woven into her web. I have seen trapdoor spiders do that. I have seen wolf spiders do that. But I've never seen a black house do it. Has anyone else? Here is my Badumna artist.

So many regulars I want to introduce, but I will have to be selective. So last is my little common house sider who lives on the porch. Achaearanea sp. I call her Portico.

Portico was using a tiny piece of twig caught in her web to stabilise herself as she wrapped a large prey. I couldn't identify it.

There are lots more, but those are some of the spiders I check on every night. Their stories will be told here. Others may join, and of course, being low in the food chain, these spiders may become food. 

I have some wonderful photographs from another Castlemaine arachnophile. They'll appear here soon. Watch this space!

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The traumatic lives of the Kalimna Golden Orb Weavers

The four Golden Orb Weavers (Nephila edulis) at Kalimna Park were introduced in the June 7 blog. Nicknamed for ease of remembering, K-large was the largest. K-top was up high and also very large, and K-medium was at the same height as K-large, but not as large. Unlike the other three, half-sized K-Littley's web didn't intersect with the others. She was just a juvenile. Six weeks later, and a lot has happened. This is the abbreviated version, with only a few of the hundreds of photos I have now taken. It's been exciting, and it's been sad. [Click on pictures for larger images.]

K-Large had a very large abdomen, indicating that she was ready to lay eggs, or was eating really well! Her little male was in attendance for a week or so. You can see the engorged ends of his pedipalps (aka palps, the small leg-like things on the front). That boxing glove look means that he is a male looking for sex. He has already ejaculated the sperm and collected it in those engorged palps. That means he has got that done and can now concentrate on surviving the mating game. The males of lots of species survive. Nephila don't. If he manages to mate with her, she will store his sperm until she makes her egg sac and releases her eggs. They will be fertilised on the way out.

A few days later, the other three were still in their places, but I couldn't see K-Large until I looked up. She was on a branch at the top of her web, looking larger than ever.

The next day, she was skinny and completing her egg sac.

A day later, and she was adding some bark blobs to disguise it.

And there she stayed, for weeks. She made a small web to hang on but never again a large web to trap insects. K-Top was also large and had a male in attendance. She duly made her egg sac. Like K-Large, she added bark, or bark-like fake blobs, to her egg sac and made a small web nearby to rest on.

Then there was a storm, a really windy, cold rainy night. The next day, I couldn't see two of my three large Nephila. K-Littley was still in her place, on a ragged web, but still there. K-Large was with her sac, but K-Top's egg sac was deserted. I looked all over and eventually found K-Medium and K-Top together right over on the side of K-Medium's web, a good three metres from K-Top's egg sac. They were covered in rain drops, just hanging from the web. Skinny K-Top on high, and medium sized K-Medium below. But a tap on the web induced a small movement in K-Medium. At least she was still alive. I hoped there might be some chance of a recovery.

The next day, and they were both looking like normal Nephila on the web together. But it didn't last for long. A few days later, K-Medium was dying on her web. As her hydraulic system stopped pumping fluid into her legs, they were retracting.

The next day, after another night of heavy rain, she was dead on the ground. She had not made an egg sac, and now, never will.

Another night of rain, and I couldn't find the two adults anywhere. I haven't seen them again. K-Littley was covered in rain drops, but still fine.

And so it has been ever since. The other adult Golden Orb Weavers I was watching have all gone. Only K-Littley is left. But there are three fine egg sacs to check every day. Welcome's egg sac in the garden, along with K-Large and K-Top's up in Kalimna Park.

There's a lot of other spiders around, and another arachnophile giving me some great photos to post. Watch this space!

Friday, July 8, 2011

A little jumping spider checks out my blogging

I was writing an update on the Kalimna golden orb weavers - they've been through all sorts of traumas over the last week -  when a real cutie wandered across my desk. He was so adorable that he took over completely, and the golden orb weavers will just have to wait. He's a little jumping spider (family Salticidae) - the cute little intellectual giants of the arachnid world. They are just so curious!
[Click on the pictures for larger images.]

I am pretty sure that he is the white-mostache jumping spider (Jotus auripes). The males have the distinctive white fans of tuff above their chelicerae (the big things which hold their fangs). He walked across the desk and climbed the massive (salticid scale) computer cord - even using a safety dropline of silk in case the climb was too big for her.

Over the cord and around to the computer.

And a brief stop to check out the environment.

Then a sudden jump and he was running onto the computer.

A pause to assess the keyboard, and consider the possibility of editing my work.

A look at the screen and a quick read.

Then he suddenly turned, walked quickly out over the desk again and paused for a brief comment before leaving - he pooped on the desk!
A literary critic!

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Castlemaine - and the invasion of the Golden Orb Weavers

Blogging was suspended as we moved home to the gorgeous Australian country town of Castlemaine. It is wonderful to be sharing my love of spiders again.

The end of the twelve year drought brought solid rains to Victoria. One noticeable change was the proliferation of Golden Orb Weavers, Nephila edulis. A large elegant orb weaver, mature females have a body length of well over 20 mm. We had a few at the old home near Hurstbridge. One was outside the shed I used as my author's den, my Garret. As my first golden orb weaver to watch up close, I named her 'Precious'. She constantly grew, shedding her skin and leaving it for show. The skin is to the right, left dangling in her web. By the next day, she had disentangled it and let it drop. She had split the carapace (the top of her front section, the cephalothorax) so the grey bit is above the rest of the shed skin. She had then extracted herself - long legs and all - leaving only the shell. I was very sorry to leave her.
[Click on the images for a larger version]

'Precious' (Nephila edulis) with her shed skin

I arrived in Castlemaine to find a new Nephila right outside the window of the living room where I sit for breakfast every day. I named her 'Welcome' because I could not have had a better welcome to our new home.

Welcome (Nephila edulis) in the garden of the 'new' house

A week later and one morning she was not in her regular spot. I was delighted when, after 24 hours away, she returned. Hunting around, I found the cause of her absence. She'd created a stunning golden egg sac in the foliage of the ivy pelargonium on the edge of her web.

Welcome's egg sac

After a severe frost - a new experience for me - I rushed to check Welcome and she was hanging in the web horizontally. I was sure that I had lost her but, gradually, during the day she recovered. The location she had chosen gets no direct sun at all, south facing and always shaded by the house. A few days later, and an even more extreme frost, she was once again hanging in her web. 

Welcome, frozen on her web

This time she didn't recover. The next day she was gone. I couldn't find her body. The web was not damaged, so I guess it wasn't a bird gathering fresh dinner. I can only assume that she dropped into the foliage below. I couldn't see her body but didn't want to destroy her web by a search. The web gets covered with dew and still looks stunning in the mornings.

The Nephila in the forest have fared much better. Nearby is Kalimna Park, a 175 hectare bushland reserve, part of the Castlemaine Diggings National Heritage Park. The forest probably reduces the impact of the frosts on the spiders. Or maybe they haven't made their egg sacs yet and aren't ready to die. I am monitoring five Nephila, four in a group and one on a massive web nearby. All my Kalimna spiders will have a K in their names. Four of my five Nephila-Ks are adults and have tiny males in attendance. 

K-top (Nephila edulis) with her male

Nephila-K-Top, like the other three adults, has a male in attendance. As I watched, he was strumming the web and she was responding with taps on the silken lines. Over the half hour I was there, they had not advanced past strumming. If he does mate with her, he will almost certainly be eaten. The males of most spider species tend to leave unscathed. Nephila males aren't so lucky. K-Large also has a male moving in for the act.

K-Large with her male

Nephila-K-Littley is a juevenile. I am besotted by her. Maybe this will show you why:

I will let you know how K-Large, K-Medium, K-Top and K-Littley survive. K-Massive-web is just up the road from them and has the largest web I've seen for a Nephila. Only a ten minute walk from home, I'll be checking them daily. 

But there are lots of other spiders around, even in the middle of winter. I'll be blogging them and the creatures in their environment - those which eat them, those they eat and those who just share their space.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Achaearanea sp. - so very good to watch

This is all about the little spider who is almost everywhere on houses around the world, and often goes unnoticed. But once you find them, they are so very good to watch, because there is nothing hidden. They are sometimes called the American house spider, or the common house spider, and are introduced into Australia.

Achaearanea species are small spiders in the Theridiid family - that is the big family which includes the black widows and redbacks. All theridiids tend to have the big abdomen and tiny cephalothorax. Achaearanea are totally harmless. (Click on images to get a bigger version).

The webs are messy cobwebs, so it usually looks like a messy, unused web, until you look closely and see the pale owner. A strong torch, even during the day, helps a lot.

The males are easy to identify - smaller than the females and with the 'boxing glove' palps typical of mature males. I have watched the mating games go on for hours, sometimes with one guy ... 

... or maybe two.

The female will build a messy egg sac, hanging it in her web.

And then they hatch. Great to watch - and the babies stay around for a week or more.

There is so much to say about these litle guys, but that will almost do for today. Except for one of their most notable acts - the ability to deal with prey much bigger than themselves.  Here one has bailed up a white-tailed spider (Lampona sp.) ...

and a massive (on small spider scale) beetle.

All you have to do to see them is leave the messy webs alone. They are everywhere!

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Two months in the life of a mummy long-legs

Mother-cups, the daddy long-legs (Pholcus phalangioides), lives in the kitchen cupboard, above the coffee and cups. She has been holding her egg sac for over a month. Just hanging around, occasionally moving position, with her egg sac held firmly in her jaws. Junk from her feeding accumulated in the corner of the web. (Click on images for full size.)

The egg sac grew in size, and legs started to be visible in a few of the eggs.

And then the eggs were separating, with the eggs more visible. They were starting to hatch.

The next day, the hatching began. One tiny spiderling broke free and stretched out its long legs, leaving the collapsed white egg shell behind. 

It was nearly two hours before the next egg hatched, a pair of legs appearing on the other side of the egg sac to the first little spiderling. 

The next morning, and they were all bursting forth.

After 24 hours of holding the bundle of legs and bodies, Mother-cups suddenly started vigorously  kicking the spiderlings out of the bundle.

Then she decided to leave them to it and go for a wander.

She returned, after an hour of peace, and kicked out the remaining few spiderlings.

She then dropped the empty egg sac onto the coffee tin below. One little spiderling hadn't hatched.

All done! Mother-cups returned to her young and stood guard.

That was a week ago. They all hung around together. Then, this morning, after two months in her corner, Mother-cups and all her young were suddenly gone. I found her in the other side of the cupboard. The young have all dispersed.

I have at least another dozen females in the living area, many with egg sacs. After few years, and hundreds of young being born in here, I know that we will not be overrun with them. Something is regulating their numbers. Probably sibling-dinners.

This is going on in houses all over the world. All you need to do is skip the housework, leave the webs and watch the amazing behaviour of these incredibly docile, harmless creatures.