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August 10, 2013

webA friend told me a story this weekend about the attraction that a spider gathered at a recent family get-together, when an insect flew into its web.   Just as many of us have felt when we watched one of the great cats isolate and then tackle the lame or young deer or wildebeest on a TV nature show, my friend felt the urge to rescue the spider’s prey.  However, her family’s consensus was to let nature play out and once the spider moved over to spin its silk around the prey before it could escape from the web, the end of the story became clear.

Spiders feed on insects, but cannot digest solids, so they turn their catch into liquid with enzymes or by grinding it into a pulp.  Many species rely on their very fine sense of vibration to detect their prey.

Researchers from Indiana State University and University of South Carolina have described how crickets may be able to develop self-defense mechanisms from spiders in their offspring.  They put pregnant crickets into boxes containing a wolf spider with fangs covered with wax, so that the spiders could stalk, but not kill the crickets.  The behavior of the offspring was then compared the behavior of the offspring from a control group of pregnant crickets that had not been exposed to spiders.  The differences between the two cohorts were dramatic.  The baby crickets from mothers that had been exposed to spiders remained still and safe from the predators for 113 percent longer than the other crickets and as a result had higher survival rates.thCAEM3GRY

Humans also take precautionary measures to avoid them.  Some of us have a deep fear of them, although a very small portion of spiders present any real danger.  Arachnophobia can be a serious condition and sightings to webs or exposure to spiders and spark panic attacks and other symptoms.   This fear is deeply embedded, although the reasons for this are not clear.  We find many uses of this fear and phobia in popular culture and literature.  Somebody even created an entire movie on this condition and generated $53 million at the box office in 1990.  J.R.R. Tolkein, who was bitten by a tarantula as a boy, but claimed as an adult that he knew nothing of it or remembered anything until others told him, had a prominent role for spiders (those of you who speak Elven, will know them as cing or cingwin) in The Hobbit

“I put in the spiders largely because this was, you remember, primarily written for my children (at least I had them in mind), and one of my sons [Michael] in particular dislikes spiders with a great intensity. I did it to thoroughly frighten him and it did!”

However, not everyone dislikes spiders.  Count E.B. White, the author of the children’s book Charlotte’s Web, among them.  He was quite fond of spiders.  You may recall that the story involves a pig named Wilbur who is befriended by a spider named Charlotte.  Charlotte enlists the barnyard rat Templeton and the two of them do everything that they can to prevent the farmers from slaughtering the pig.  For her part, Charlotte spins a magnificent web to spell the phrase “Some Pig” in order to show the farmers that her friend Wilbur is very special.  It works, her pig friend is spared.  However, in a very sad turn, young readers eventually learn that it is Charlotte who will die, after she creates her egg sac, her “magnum opus.”  Thereafter, in an ongoing cycle, starting with Charlotte’s offspring, Joy, Nellie, and Aranea, Wilbur develops friendships with succeeding spider generations.  White was very curious about spiders.  He wrote about this in a September 1952 letter to his editor, shortly before the book was released.  He discloses there how he too was the beneficiary of Charlotte’s offspring, which he released in his yard.

At the present time, three of Charlotte’s granddaughters are trapping at the foot of the stairs in my barn cellar, where the morning light, coming through the east window, illuminates their embroidery and makes it seem even more wonderful than it is.

David Sedaris wrote an amusing story a few years ago about his fascination with spiders in the New Yorker (subscription required) that is even funnier when he reads it out loud as April in Paris in the e-book, When You are Engulfed in FlamesHe finds a Tegeneria spider in France and develops an anthropomorphized relationship with it.

Spiders are prevalent throughout the world.  Scientists have documented more than 40,000 species on all continents other than Antarctica.  Spiders as we know them, can be traced back 200 million years.  One of the reasons that they are so widespread is their ability to balloon to far flung places.  This is absolutely fascinating.

Christopher Buddle, a professor with McGill University, is also interested in spiders.  He tells about ballooning on his blog, Arthropod Ecology.  Ballooning is the term he uses for the spider’s act of releasing a strand of silk that is then used to carry them with wind power.  Buddle refers to research that shows spiders sailing along at altitudes of 15,000 feet and gives us Charles Darwin’s comment about spiders finding their way to his ship, the Beagle.

“These, glittering in the sunshine, might be compared to diverging rays of light; they were not, however, straight, but web 2in undulations like films of silk blown by the wind.”

I highly recommend taking a look at Chris Buddle’s blog – I think that you will enjoy it.  And if you are not averse towards or negatively affected by the sight of these eight-legged animals, take a moment to view the beauty in the next spider web that you see.

From → Nature

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