Monthly Archives: August 2020

So Why Spiders?

Truth-in-blogging-disclaimer: Much of what follows was a response to a question on, viz: “Why do you like spiders?” I have been asked this a number of times, and thought that I’d really rather direct people to my admittedly often-ignored-blog than to Quora, so with some minor changes, this is how I answered that question:

First, though, the non-asked question “Why bugs?” is easy: I was born an entomologist. My earliest memories are of collecting insects, and my mother always told me that, as a baby, I would lie in my playpen and watch the ants rather than play with toys. At age 8, when I learned it could be done—and that it would be would be essential for a professional career—I decided to get a Ph.D. in entomology.

I remember, too, at age 4 when we lived in Douglas, Arizona, I would go into the garage and kill the “black widows” therein—and black widows only*👇, as I had been told to leave them alone, their being “bad” spiders and potentially dangerous.

Now, it’s true that spiders aren’t insects, of course, but as it turns out, educationally, entomologists get the arachnids, and plant pathologists get the nematodes. So I had always had a general interest in spiders, flies, and beetles…at least somewhat more than in most other arthropods.

What really got me interested in spiders, though, was one particular observation that I made in the 1970s, while I was in grad school studying entomology. One day, while driving from home to school, I noticed an adult female Phidippus audax (a robust and very common jumping spider) peeking out from the edge of my sun visor while resting upside down on the car’s headliner.

<i>Phiddipus audax</i>
Phiddipus audax, the bold jumper

Now, as might be imagined, jumping spiders stalk their prey and, when close enough, um… jump on it. This particular spider was stalking a fly, also upside down and resting on the headliner about 4 inches from the sun visor. The spider crept out stealthily closer to the fly, and then suddenly leapt at the fly. The fly, of course, flipped and took off.

The spider intercepted the fly’s trajectory, grabbed it in mid-flight, and, thanks to its ever-present drag line, swung down with the fly, climbed back up the drag line, and carried its prey back behind the sun visor for a leisurely lunch.

I was thinking: no big deal, right? Spiders do this all the time.

But then it dawned on me that the spider and its prey had been upside down. Thus, it’s impossible for a spider to jump from one spot on a headliner to another, because as soon as it jumps, it begins to fall, i.e., gravity makes it impossible for the spider to jump onto the fly, instead, the spider’s downward trajectory had to intercept the fly’s!

Now, how did the spider know this? Do upside down jumping spiders “know” they’re upside down? Do they “know” their prey will have a downward trajectory, too?

And so I wondered: How on earth did that spider ever catch that fly? Luck?

That one incident led me to focus on spider biology and behavior. Spiders never became my job. I did teach Araneology at Cornell, but that was not the main focus of my job there. Instead, it was something I undertook owing to my passionate interest, an interest that has never waned.

And, speaking of gravity…

* Probably the western black widow, Latrodectus hesperus, but my parents called them simply “black widows.” *👆

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Bugs…and Music!

Those who know me from my musical instrument retailing days understand why my email addresses feature “music.” And, owing to that first sentence, those who have known me only as an entomologist now understand the origins of those addresses, too!

I suspect that had persistent email addresses existed in the 1970s, my email would have been arthropod-related. Come to think on it, I still have a working Yahoo email address from 2000 that also combines both interests, viz.: musicmygale@yahoo.

Anyway, combining those disparate interests–entomology from birth, music since 1958–had never been something I sought to do…until now (although I do rather like the fiddle tune Spider Bit the Baby).

So, owing to the following cascading–if bizarre–sequence of events, I have, indeed, combined music and spiders:

  1. A high school friend sent a me Haiku he wrote regarding COVID-19.
  2. In consequence, I, too, started writing in Haiku (he 5-7-5 syllable version) and started a Facebook group called “Surviving COVID-19 with Haiku.”
  3. I awoke one morning thinking*👇: “Gee, it would be hard to fit the scientific name of the common house spider, Parasteatoda tepidariorum (C. L. Koch, 1841) into Haiku format. So I did, of course, and posted same on my personal FB page, its having nothing to do with the trumpandemic.
  4. In response, one of my real-life FB friends jokingly suggested it should be a children’s song, so I
  5. jokingly replied that the words “Parasteatoda tepidariorum” would fit quite nicely into the melody of Gary Indiana, the song from Meredith Willson’s 1957 musical, The Music Man. So, naturally I
  6. wrote some words to fit.

Herewith my version, called (cleverly) Parasteatoda tepidariorum:

And yes, consider this to be a warning that I shall post another spider song anon.

Preview(opens in a new tab)

Technical notes for non-biologists:

  1. P. tepidariorum is one of the most common spiders living around humans (i.e. “synanthropic.”)
  2. A “scientific name” has two parts: the genus (“Parasteatoda”) and a specific epithet (“tepidariorum“). Thus, a scientific name can also be called a “binomial,” as I’ve used it in the song.
  3. Once one has stated the genus, it can be abbreviated to just its first letter–as I did in (1), above, and in the song.
  4. Barring some major error–such as describing as new a species that someone else has already published–the specific epithet stays with the organism forever, though the critter can be reassigned to another genus–which often happens. When it does, the name of the original author is placed in parentheses, as in this case.
  5. P. tepidariorum has bounced around from genus to genus in the last 179 years, having also been called Steatoda tepidariorum and Achaearanea**👇 tepidariorum, as well as a number of other names declared to be invalid synonyms. (If you really want to know, visit this page of the World Spider Catalog.)

Technical notes for non-musicians:

  1. Despite what you’re hearing, I used to be a decent guitar and banjo player, having
  2. not only played in quite a few bands, but
  3. having taught “professionally” starting in a music conservatory in 1964 and continuing privately until 2020.
  4. I stopped teaching largely owing to the combined effects of a broken left thumb and rather painful osteoarthritis in each hand.
  5. So, if you’re to judge my playing, please either listen to my MP3s or visit my Youtube channel–these repositories contain hundreds of recording of my playing instruments (mostly banjos) that I was trying to sell.

*👆 Weird, perhaps, but not at all out of character.

*👆 I learned this species as Achaearanea tepidariorum when It took Araneology in grad school. It became my favorite binomial, simply because of its comprising 12 syllables for such a tiny animal! My first response to its being put into Parasteatoda in 2006 was one of loss and disappointment. But then, I realized that it still has all 6 syllables and the word certainly scans better than Achaearanea for use in song or poetry! So it’s still my favorite name to bandy about.

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What’s This Doing Here?

On 29 May, 2019, as I was walking into my house, I noticed a male spitting spider (that’s for real: the members of the family Scytodidae are called spitting spiders for good reason!) on my office’s door frame. I had seen 2-3 of them in the house we have inhabited for ca. 3½ years, but I honestly had not paid them much attention, as one species, Scytodes thoracica (Latreille, 1802) is fairly common, and–while they are consummately cool spiders–I had stopped collecting ca. forty years ago, and have not been actively involved in any spider activity other than the occasional and casual observation of them for the intervening decades.

My mystery Spider

So I really didn’t think much about this spider until I had gone inside the house, and mused about the fact that I had never seen S. thoracica outdoors before.

I went back out and looked at it some more, and realized that it simply didn’t look like S. thoracica, with which I had been familiar since….I don’t know: forever? So I went back inside and did some cursory research to see if we had other spitting spiders in North Carolina, and learned that another species, S. longipes Lucas, 1844, has appeared here and there in the area, and was extending its range northward. in a new tab)

So I decided this must be S. longipes, apologized to it, and preserved it in alcohol so that I could examine its microscopic features (the structure of the male pedipalps, if you must know) to see if it was, indeed, not S. thoracica. It was decidedly not, so I naïvely figured I had found S. longipes, and put the now-pickled spider aside.

On 30 April 2020, I found a dead male Scytodes on my bathroom floor. Fortunately, it was freshly dead (i.e. still flexible but not rotten), so I pickled it, and set it aside.

Sometime that May, I went out one evening and found three scytodids concurrently on a different door frame. Foolishly, I did not collect any, or even note the date, still assuming all of these to have been S. longipes.

A few weeks later, my pet black widow died (awww…), so I got out my microscope for my son, Benjamin, to look at her cadaver. When he was finished, I figured I’d take a look at the bathroom Scytodes to see if it, too, was possibly S. longipes. Examination of its palp indicated it was indeed the same species. But this time, figuring something was going on, I dug into the literature to verify their really being S. longipes, and…they clearly weren’t!

Intrigued, I dug deeper, looking for palpal structures that looked like the spiders at hand. After many hours of reading papers (going back to 1837), I found a 2007 paper by Cristina Rheims, Antonio Brescovit, and César Durán-Barrón on Mexican species of the genus Scytodes, in which they described 13 new species. One of those new species, S. atlacoya, had palpi similar to those of my specimens, and unlike those of any other Scytodes I could find.

On 26 May, I sent an email to each of the authors (the first two in Brazil, the third in Mexico) with crude photographs of my spiders and their palpi, asking if they thought I might have a Mexican spider now in North Carolina. Naturally, the response was “could be, but we can’t tell without seeing the specimens” (Hey, I was happy simply to hear back from each of the three authors, and had been hoping for that very answer!).

I packed up the two male spiders and made arrangements to send them to Brazil (Señor Durán-Barrón proclaims himself not to be a Scytodes expert, but had “merely” sent the Mexican specimens to Dr. Rheims and Senhor Brescovit, each of whom is).

After sealing that carefully prepared shipment, I walked outside on the evening of 29 May 2020 (one year to the day after finding that first male) and saw a female Scytodes (again on a door frame!) who looked suspiciously like my male specimens. Naturally, I collected her and examined her genitalia (sorry, but that’s how one does it with spiders!).

Sure enough, she, too, looked to my eye likely to be S. atlacoya! So on 02 Jun 2020, I repacked everything, emailed a photo of her genitalia (an admittedly scientifically useless photo) to Brazil, repacked the now-three spiders, and sent them off to the lab in São Paulo, where they arrived safely 09 Jun.

A Female Scytodes atlaoya

On 28 July Senhor Antonio Brescovit, who had been quarantined away from work (thanks, COVID), was able to go back to his lab and confirmed that the specimens I had sent are, indeed, S. atlacoya Rheims, Brescovit, and Durán-Barrón 2007.

“So what?” I hear you ask? Well some research revealed that only few specimens have been reported in the USA: a few in TX, a couple in OK, and some in MS, FL, and GA: but none had ever been recognized in NC.

Meanwhile, I kept finding these spiders all over my house and even some in my tool shed. One night, I went out with a light and observed 27 of them on the side of my house, 11 of them on my front porch, and about 20 of some very young spiderlings by the door where I collected the first female (though not her offspring–their mother and five of her kids live on my desk at this writing)!

I have since been observing their behavior and rearing them from eggs; and have already learned a lot about them. They also prompted me to buy a macro lense for our DSLR, so I can actually get some closer shots now.

A female carrying her egg sac (from which hatched >50 spiderlings)

So I’m sure I shall be adding more information here as things develop. Suffice it to say, this old spider-nerd is really enjoying himself these days!


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