Tag Archive: arachnid


while on holiday, i got the chance to do something i don’t find a lot of time for right now–go bug hunting!  the garden where we were staying was small, but verdant, and i found a few obliging subjects.  none fell into the notoriously venomous/aggressive category that seems a bit overrepresented in australia (like the sydney funnel-web, redback, or mouse spider).  this one is a philodromid (maybe Tibellus?), apparently related to crab spiders.  i just liked the spiky setae.

DSC_0383the one that caught my eye the most was this beautiful st andrew’s cross spider (Argiope aetherea; i especially like the genus name, which means “silver face”).  i’ve come across Argiope before, and was fascinated by the stabilimenta that some species weave into their webs.  this one didn’t have any but was pretty enough without!

DSC_0406and finally, one of australia’s most recognizable web-builders, the golden silk orb weaver, Nephila sp. (today is brought to you by excellent latin names; Nephila means “fond of spinning”, which i hadn’t yet found out when these guys last made appearances here and here).  you can see the golden color of the silk in this photo, which is interesting as it didn’t look that golden to the naked eye, and if you scroll down the wikipedia page you can see what must be one of the most impressive spider-related human creations of all time, a cape made of Nephila silk.  OMG.  this one did not appear to be all that industrious, just hanging out mid-air at australia zoo, startling anyone who may or may not have thought it would be funny to hide behind a tree for a prank.  hint: in australia… don’t!

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you will be astonished to hear, no doubt, that in among the sea and jungle and sky photos… there are spiders!  not as many as i’d like, but i did see a few of these guys, and my new little point and shoot (thanks, dad!) did a pretty good job with them.  this is Gasteracantha sp., a ‘spiny’ orb weaver, apparently an invader of the hawaiian islands (or perhaps adventive?) and the subject of some taxonomic disagreement, since some sources call it G. mammosa while others consider it a synonym of G. cancriformis (of necklace fame).

anyway, the title of this edition is perhaps overly dramatic; the bishop museum of hawaii lists it as a ‘bad guy’ for being non-native (not clearly explained) and goes on to say that it’s more harmless than it looks, although i have also read that it will bite if the web is disturbed and may be poisonous.  others seeking online IDs have come up with similar info, and whichever species it is, it’s very interesting to look at.  the spiderlings are cute, too, although they don’t look much like their parents.  we tended to see them in large webs along the edges of sidewalks, and i was surprised at the spider’s smallish size given the span of the web — often the spider was right in the middle and looked like a small amorphous blob of detritus; that’s probably the point (no pun intended, i swear).

it was a little tricky to shoot these guys as the webs danced in the breeze, so i don’t have a huge number of images of them, but from what i saw they had lovely coloration and very interesting sculpture on the abdomen (both dorsal and ventral) and i’d love the chance to look at them more closely sometime.  alive, of course, not encased in a drop of acrylic!

a lot of my current web traffic (sorry) seems to be spider-related, so it’s only fitting that my 4ooth post be (of) arachnid(s) in nature.  spider on!

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while i am pulling together a few new webnesday posts, i wanted to share some links to very cool spider stuff that others have sent me recently.  first, there are these amazing microscopy images by igor siwanowicz, mostly of jumping spider eyes, but also of some very cool other arthropods and beasties.

Jumping spider - frontal section, anterior median eyes: lenses removed

then there are some other lovely macro shots of spiders and amblypygids by dylan van winkel, an article about beefy-legged spider cannibals (Palpimanus spp.),  and a nice gallery with accompanying info about a variety of cool spider studies.  and did you know that there’s a spider that spends its entire life underwater?!

i think you need some tarantula slippers.  (for dancing the tarantella?)

and finally, a lovely ‘find the spider’ photo over on krikit arts.

some weeks, this feature pretty much writes itself.  last week’s katipo was inspired by current events, but rarely has a specific webnesday subject presented itself as irrepressibly as this one.
back in march, we did a lovely five-hour hike along the west coast of auckland, north of the waitakere ranges, which will be the subject of a separate post with many more photos.  one of the things we – well, maybe i, and the others mostly from the fact that i kept stopping to take photos – noticed was the great abundance of nursery-webs in the shrubs.  the webs look like this, and really did appear in astonishing density.

according to the forsters, these are the nursery-webs of Dolomedes minor (family Pisauridae), close relatives of the forest-and-stream-dwelling D. aquaticus and ‘D. species III’ earlier featured here (actually, i just discovered that i never got around to ‘D. species III’ – stay tuned!).  they mention that the females, after carrying their large egg-sacs around for about five weeks, construct these tents for the spiderlings to hatch into (actually, they hatch inside the egg-sac about a week before the web is built, but remain within it until contained within the nursery-web).  the females then remain with the webs for a further week, hiding somewhere below during the day but often on the web itself at night and visible by flashlight (how i wanted to take this hike again with a flashlight… !).
imagine my surprise, then, when over the past weekend, on another walk on the central plateau, a pristine nursery-web caught my eye and proved occupied, in broad daylight!

i suspect that this female may have been lured into the open by the prospect of a large meal, although i couldn’t get close enough to tell who her hapless dinner had been (other than an almost equally large spider).  in any case, i was very excited to be able to pair up these D. minor photos with the web-photos from the earlier walk.
and then the pebbles sent me an email from work, saying that one of his colleagues had found an enormous spider in his laptop bag (thanks, allan!) and that another colleague had trapped it – in her cupped hands, no less – and saved it for me (thanks, nat!).  they tentatively identified it as ‘nursery-web,’ and sure enough… look who it was.

isn’t she stunning?  i can’t really explain what she was doing in a computer bag, but i’m very glad she turned up there, particularly since the pebbles’ colleagues are both kind-spirited and well aware of my arachnophilia.  :)  after her photo session, and after turning down a large dinner offering (not sure whether she was just tired of being in a box, or not hungry, or whether the offering was perhaps a bit too big – it went to feed my sister’s axolotls in the end), she was released into our garden under cover of darkness.  i followed her explorations with a flashlight for a few minutes (recommended by the forsters, after all), and was amazed to see that when she was facing the light, even from a distance of 1-2 meters, i could see pinpricks of light reflecting from her eyes.  i had read about a similar effect in lycosids (“torchlight is reflected by a special layer of crystalline cells called a tapetum at the back of their eyes,” p. 81), but while not actually discounting it, had wanted to see it sometime for myself.  and i have to say, seeing spider eyes glowing in the dark ranks pretty high on the list of cool spider revelations that webnesday has brought me in its time.  here are a few more parting pics:

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i’ve been planning a katipo edition for some time, but so far it’s always been pushed aside in favor of other flashier, hairier beasts.  this seems to be in keeping with the katipo’s nature – it’s apparently a shy-ish spider, seldom encountered unless one is frolicking in the sand dunes, and even then unlikely to bite except in defense.  being a member of the genus Latrodectus, and thus cousin to the black widow (L. mactans), its bite can be quite severe – in fact, it’s new zealand’s only native, truly poisonous spider – but in order to be bitten, you’d pretty much have to be rolling around naked near, or through, its web.  and since it’s endangered, you’d probably still have to be pretty unlucky to encounter one.  plus, only the females can bite humans, so the chances are reduced by an additional 50%.

well… the time has come for the katipo’s moment of fame, because guess what happened recently (no photos, sorry).  you thought those circumstances were far-fetched, right?  he probably did too, right up until he awoke in the throes of latrodectism and went off to a 16-day stay in the hospital.  they never found the spider, but if they had, it would have looked like this – quite lovely, actually.  (photo modified from wikipedia)

the katipo, in addition to being shiny, endemic and endangered, is one of the ‘nicer’ members of the genus.  although it may have several insects hanging in the larder at any one time, its courtship is quite civilised, compared to some of the other species, like the australian redback (L. hasselti), where the female eats the male during or after copulation two thirds of the time.  after a polite, non-predatory encounter, the female katipo creates five or six eggsacs over about a month, hanging them under a dome-shaped web that eventually becomes covered in (and camouflaged by) sand.

like other rare, endemic new zealand fauna, the katipo has loaned its name and image to a number of nz businesses and organizations, including a film company, a book collective and a very cool cafe.

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this week, my career as an arachnophile reached new heights.  people are now bringing me spiders.  i got a text on easter morning from a friend coming over later, along the lines of ‘found a horrifying, slavering eight-legged monster in the bedroom, chewing on the last remains of the family dog.  should i bring it to you?’  well, what can you say to that except ‘hell yeah!’
so here she is – meet ‘night’ (or ‘knight’ if you ask the pebbles), christened by said friend’s toddler on the car ride over.

i don’t mind telling you, her ID led me a merry dance through the interweb and the pages of the forsters.  first i was happy calling her Miturga (a ‘prowling’ spider), because she closely matched an illustration in my nz spider bible.  but then i discovered some taxonomic upset about the Miturgidae and the earlier-featured Uliodon (which post i may have to revise shortly), so i did what i should have done first, which was to look at the eyes for some initial clues.

and bingo, that solved at least the family ID – Lycosidae for sure (‘wolf’ spiders), characterized by the front-most row of four small eyes, then the middle row of two large ones, then finally the back row of two more, posteriorly directed.  genus/species not so easy though… in fact, i think i have to leave it at ‘lycosid sp.’ unless someone really clever wants to chime in here and help me out.  i managed to find one other photo of what i think is the same species, but the page is a bit random and actually has no info about the photo.  sigh.

you will notice that night is busy having breakfast here.  this served two purposes – it only seemed fair to feed her after she spent the night in a jar (so balm for my conscience, i guess), plus it kept her obligingly still for her modeling session and gave me the chance to appreciate her bristly, kind of walrus-like face.
interestingly (spider fact of the week coming up!) i learned that the way i had always believed spiders to feed was incorrect – they don’t inject venom through the fangs, liquidizing the prey inside, and then suck the fluid back in through the fangs.  oops.  instead they pierce and/or crush it with the fangs, in addition to injecting venom, to soften it all up.  then they sort of lap/suck the fluids in through an actual mouth located behind the fangs, filtering the goo through two progressively fine sets of hairs along the way, which gets rid of the indigestible bits.  and this is exaclty what i observed with the fly i gave her; the forsters also describe it accurately thus (p. 82): ‘feeding begins while they prey is transfixed by the fangs.  depending on size it takes the spider 5 to 30 minutes to reduce an insect to the soggy little ball of indigestible crushed cuticle and wings that is dropped and left behind as its quest for further food continues.’  yes indeedy – no empty but recognizeable husk, just a tiny, slightly wet black ball of mashed fly bits.  yummy.
given her efficiency and good behavior, i liberated night under the house to take care of the many other tasty morsels i’m sure live down there.  i’ll let you know if she turns up for another visit.  ::::)

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i’ve had a few bits of spidery luck lately — saw a lovely big male vagrant (Uliodon sp.) over the weekend, was visited in the shower by a white-tail, and while i sat outside yesterday, a nice little coppery jumper threw a few lines of silk over my arm.  but today… today i hit the jackpot.

i almost made it out of a large book sale less than $40 poorer… but then there was this.  there i was, shuffling my thick but bargainous stack of imminent purchases from arm to arm, casting a cursory final glance over the table, when the heavens opened and a thread of gleaming golden silk dropped down to caress the shiny black cover.  i nearly dropped everything else i was carrying.

did you know about the stercoral chamber?  the malpighian tubules?  how about the thoracenteron?  me neither – but i will!  and look – recognize this?

i believe we’ve seen that behavior somewhere before!  and do we want to know more about jumping spiders?  ok then…

i might be just a tiny (dare we say ‘itsy bitsy’) bit in love with this book.  i might be trying really hard not to drool all over it.  and i might also be trying really hard not to just spew out nz spider facts and stats like some crazed Porrhothele with diarrhetic spinnerets.  (remember when i was trying to find the names of the different kinds of hairs on the legs?  got ’em!  setose, feathery, tenent!)  how am i doing?
on a sobering note, this does not bode well for my other current projects.  i’m part-teaching a course with 1400 students enrolled, knitting a beret, writing a book, finshing the revisions on my thesis for publication, and doing some free-lance editing.  but guess what.  there are ~2500 species of spider in new zealand and i want to read about them all!  i want to peruse barry webster’s beautiful drawings at leisure and go back to fix any inaccuracies i managed to relate in the earlier 42 episodes of webnesday!  i want to start a life-list of spiders and include a wish-list section!

in short, i want to spend the next several months like this:

WHO’S WITH ME?!

there’s been a slight drought of spider sightings lately, so once again i will tackle a beast i have not personally encountered (except dried in museums), but whose photo can be found amply splashed across the interweb.  i actually had a request from someone to feature this critter (someone who, i believe, checks out webnesday posts with a kind of horrified fascination – probably not alone), so here we go: the ‘camel spider,’ ‘wind scorpion’ (plus any of a host of other common names), or, more technically, solifugid.

(image courtesy of wikipedia, as usual)

this bulbous (and admittedly alarming-looking) beast, like a few other misunderstood groups i’ve featured here, actually belongs to its own order of arachnid, the Solifugae.  note that it appears to have ten ‘legs’ –  the front two, which are much larger than the other eight (the latter being the true legs), are actually the pedipalps.  other hallmarks are the enormous jaws (chelicerae), which are longer than the main part of the cephalothorax.  these are used for biting and tearing and can do a bit of damage due to their size and strength, but have not been proven to contain any venom.  (one study claimed to have identified venom in a single species, but has not been successfully replicated.)
the jaws also do not possess anaesthetic, as was rumored in emails about nasty solifugids in iraq – you may have seen these, usually accompanied by images like this.  the claims that they chew large holes in sleeping people (or camels), and some other amusing myths, are neatly dispelled by snopes; national geographic also had a bit to say about them.  the photo is authentic, but the solifugids are positioned much closer to the camera than they appear, giving a false impression of their size (max legspan about 5″ – considerable but not THAT big).
solifugids can run quite quickly, and apparently do have the startling habit of following moving animals in the desert.  however, this ‘chasing’ seems to be in pursuit of the shade cast by the panicking, would-be escapee, rather than an indicator of aggression on the solifugid’s part.  they eat invertebrates and lizards, some larger than themselves, but would not be likely to bite a person other than under duress.
as with most arachnids, some intrepid souls do import solifugids and keep them as pets.  they would not be at the top of my list, though (partly because of their short lifespan and resistance to captive breeding), and i can’t say i wouldn’t exit my sleeping bag quickly if i found a wild one like this sharing it with me.

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… if you are a non-predatory arthropod.  for one thing, there are a lot of predatory arthropods around.  we have hundreds, if not thousands, of what they call 'daddy longlegs' here (Pholcus phalangioides according to the Te Papa spider page).


we get the occasional white-tail (Lampona sp.), one of the only poisonous spiders in the whole country – came over from australia, of course.  this one turned up in the kitchen sink this morning.

we also have some very fine grey house spiders in residence (Badumna longinqua), one staking out territory at either end of the house.  tucked into the curtains next to the garden windows, we have one whose abdomen is nearly the size of my thumbnail.  i thought she had disappeared for a while, but i was working from home a couple days ago when i heard a thunk against the glass.  she'd stamped her foot!  kidding, it was a female blackbird who had seen the spider out strolling on the glass and tried to take a bite.  didn't faze the spider at all, although she got tired of my camera flash and retreated in short order.

now we come to the other reason it's dangerous to be a non-predatory arthropod in my house… i confess, i don't just watch nature take its course in the local webs.  since fly season is winding down and i like to keep my resident flycatchers happy and fit, i occasionally take matters into my own hands and send some goodies their way.  i learned spider-feeding from my dad, who usually had a fat favorite somewhere in each house we lived in. 

i tried to get a video of the window spider taking a fly i tossed into her web this afternoon (call me sadistic, but he did buzz so delightfully frantically), but she was too fast.  the best i could do was snatch a shot of her beforehand.

but there was no shortage of flies, so i turned my attention to the kitchen spider.  (you'll notice i've managed to keep from naming them so far – i know their lives are brief, and, like molly grue, i inevitably come to care for anyone i feed.)

this one is a little smaller – abdomen about the size of my little fingernail.  and i imagine the pickings are a bit slimmer in this corner, which is why a free meal was immediately accepted.

here's a bit of predatory action.

i'm normally too soft-hearted to feed anything live food.  but by the end of the screenless summer – especially after the fantastic wafting smells of the pebbles' barbecued ribs draw every fly within a 2-km-radius to our kitchen (can't say i blame them) – i tend to toughen up a bit.

i guess it would also be dangerous to live in my house if you were arachnophobic.

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