Fool Me Once… A Cautionary Tale

Or, in this case, fool me twice.

A few months back, I was “vetting” some photographs that had been submitted to the North Carolina Biodiversity Project’s Arachnid page when I came across this photo, submitted as possibly being Agelenopsis pennsylvanica (C. L. Koch, 1843), one of the grass spiders (sometimes called “funnel weavers”) of the family Agelenidae.

A Grass Spider

Now, right off, it didn’t look to be Agelenopsis to me, for a number of reasons, none of which are easy to specify–it just didn’t look right.

When all one has is a photo, though, identifications can get tricky, and–my not being from ’round these parts–I didn’t recognize what seemed to me to be what should be a readily identified species.

I am generally hesitant to start searching online photo collections looking and hoping for a match: After all, not only do many spiders look similar, but online photos can be misidentified. So, I did the next logical thing: I asked a highly experienced person also working on the project if he had any thoughts.

He immediately responded with a likely ID of Barronopsis texana (Gertsch, 1934), another agelenid genus known from NC…and he was spot on, of course.

As B. texana was a species which I’d never seen (or even heard of) before, I naturally did some literature searching to learn something about it. First off, I learned why I was unfamiliar with it: It occurs from NC south through Florida, thence west into Texas: All my collecting has been in the Midwest and Northeast, so I’d simply never come across Barronopsis before.

So, armed with this knowledge, I was ready for my next encounter, right? Um…no, this is where the “fool me twice” bit kicks in, I’m embarrassed to admit.

A couple of months later, a neighbor brought a living spider to me, about which I immediately proclaimed (in my very best know-it-all-tones) “that’s an immature wolf spider!” and then–using the Occam’s Razor Theory of Spider Identification–promptly guessed at a species.

OK, I’m sure you see where this is going! When I got it under the microscope it was immediately clear that this was not a lycosid (wolf) spider at all, much less the species I had guessed. Nope, wrong family altogether, its being (as you’ve no doubt already surmised) another of the agelenid Barronopsis texana, of which I had so recently been totally ignorant–and, sadly, had apparently remained.

Barronopsis texana I misidentified!

But, my suffering this ignominy did, at least, lead to a happy ending. A few weeks later, I was visiting a relative’s house some miles away when I found a spider molt skin having familiar markings. I looked around and found funnel webs on a building wall, from which webs I captured an adult female and an adult male B. texana. And this time I got it right!

Female(L) and male(R) Barronopsis texana

Morals of the story:

  1. No matter how much I think I know, there is always someone who knows a lot more.
  2. Don’t hesitate to say “I’m not sure–let me get a closer look”.
  3. This is a very cool species!
  4. It’s so much fun to learn new things!

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