Halloween Spider Spectacular
I love spiders. I have hundreds of pictures of them. We have a lot spiders here in SoHum. They inhabit these woods and our home in great abundance and variety. I find them endlessly fascinating and very much enjoy their company. They make great subjects for photography. Unlike most wild animals, they tend to sit still, which makes the job a lot easier.
I have a lot of respect for spiders. They’ve “seen” a lot on this here rock. According to archeologists, spiders’ ancient ancestors were among the first sea animals to venture onto dry land, and they colonized it aggressively. 200 million years ago, 50 millions years before the first insects, flying or otherwise, most of the major spider families of modern times, had already achieved worldwide distribution.
God only knows what they ate for those first 50 million years or so, but clearly, spiders have remarkable survival skills. For 150 million years they have adapted to everything that nature has thrown at them, including us, and they continue to flourish. Even as we instigate cataclysmic changes in our environment, triggering a massive wave of extinction around the globe, perhaps including our own, spiders seem to mostly take it all in stride.
Those who call human beings the dominant species on the planet, should consider this: Spiders outnumber us, all together they outweigh us, and they will almost certainly outlast us. In their long history on this planet, the rise and fall of humanity will amount to nothing but a brief, insignificant memory to them, like a TV show that lasted only one season, or a long evening spent with a rude dinner companion.
In our unholy quest to transform all of creation to our own purposes, we have never found a way to exploit spiders for commercial purposes, nor have we ever successfully weaponized spiders. Despite their large numbers and close proximity, they don’t compete with us for anything. They carry on all around us, unnoticed, mostly unstudied, and completely undaunted, patiently awaiting the day when they will, inevitably, bury us in cobwebs like they did the dinosaurs, the wooly mammoth and the saber-toothed tiger.
I used the word “seen” in quotes earlier, because most spiders have very poor vision. Spiders gather most of their sensory information from the extremely sensitive hairs on their legs and bodies. These hairs can detect very subtle air movements and vibrations. Web spiders also “see” with their webs, using their legs to sense every ripple and wave that passes through it.
While most of the creatures in the animal kingdom now take stereoscopic vision for granted, most spiders have a very different, and much more rudimentary visual system. Most spiders have an array of eight or more somewhat directionally focused eyes. However, these tiny eyes, in most cases, probably don’t send enough information to produce a meaningful image. They can probably tell, for instance, that it is darker to their left, than to their right, but little more.
Because of this unusual visual system spider faces seem especially alien to us. I think this may have a lot to do with our attitude towards them. Even insects, with their single pair of large compound eyes, seem more like us, than spiders. While many people dislike annoying flies, few people fear them. On the other hand, spiders rarely annoy anyone, but many people fear them. While many flying insects actively seek us out and bite us, leaving painful, itchy welts, spiders only bite in self defense, and even then, only rarely.
A few spiders see very well, with stereoscopic vision, and use it to navigate their world, and hunt prey. Both wolf spiders and jumping spiders respond primarily to visual stimuli, and they both have especially large eyes, for spiders. Neither wolf spiders, nor jumping spiders content themselves to spin webs and wait for whatever comes along. In stead these spiders go out into the world, with big bright, sharply focused eyes, looking for fun and adventure.
With a large pair of front facing eyes, jumping spiders have especially endearing faces. Most jumping spiders stay quite small, but here in SoHum, I have seen some fairly large ones, at least big enough to photograph.
The spiders I find most endearing, however, are the ones I know most intimately, and I know them so intimately because they have lived with us for so long, and in such great numbers. “Daddy Long-Legs” spiders (Pholcus Phalangiodes) make cheerful easy going housemates, even if they do leave their webs and food remains all over the house.
They have a reputation for cannibalism, but I’ve never seen it. Quite the contrary. These spiders seem extremely tolerant of each other, and unlike most spiders, spend a lot of time in close proximity to each other, sharing the same web. I’ve often seen large pholcids steal food from smaller ones, but I’ve never seen a large pholcid attack a small one. I’ve seen them eat other spiders, including wolf spiders at least as large as themselves, but never each other.
Large and small pholcids happily share the same web, stepping over and around each other without hostility or fear. I’ve even seen two pholcids work together to “rope” a large fly snared in their shared web. The fly would have doubtless have struggled free from either of them, but working together they were able to subdue it. The two spiders then shared their meal.
I’ve watched them quite a bit, and for a year or so, I kept a journal of their daily lives and development. I gave them names like “Charlotte” “Wilbur” and “Templeton” and followed them from early adolescence, through several molts, to adulthood, mating and parenthood.
Pholcids love tenderly, and spend a lot of time “holding hands” with their chosen partner before mating. While male and female pholcids look identical to the naked eye for most of their lives, a mature and receptive female puts on a spectacular outfit to accentuate her femininity. She will invariably attract a mature male, perhaps a few, and she will eventually decide between them.
Then the couple will spend several days, up to two weeks or more, hanging out very close together in this “hand holding” phase. I’ve never seen pholcids mate. I think they do it in the dead of night while we are asleep, but soon, the female will have an egg sack clutched I her jaws. I have however, caught other species of spider in the act, I don’t think I’ll lose my wordpress account for posting hard-core spider-porn here.
Some would argue that these tiny invertebrates, lack any capacity for caring or emotion, but I disagree. One of these two young lovers got pinched in a window screen and died from the injury. It’s partner stayed with the dead spider for almost a week afterward. Yes, I believe that spiders love, and mourn.
Pholcid mothers devote themselves completely to raising their offspring. Once a pholcid mother has an egg sac in her jaws, she will not eat again until the young spiderlings have grown up and moved out. It takes several weeks for the eggs to incubate and hatch, and the young spiderlings stay with their mother for at least two more weeks, until their first molt.
After they molt, the young spiders strike out on their own, leaving their mother, in her web, surrounded by dozens of tiny, recently shed, exoskeletons. Female pholcids can raise more than one brood of spiderlings. Occasionally, I’ll find a mother pholcid with an egg sac, surrounded by the exoskeletons of her previous brood. I guess I should dust more.
I hope you enjoyed the Halloween Spider Spectacular. Happy Halloween!