Photo of the Week – December 30, 2010

I photographed this juvenile wolf spider on an 18 degree (Fahrenheit) day in the middle of the winter.  At the time, I was walking along a frozen creek, admiring the hoar frost on the surface and looking for photos of ice formations.  The presence of a spider on a frozen creek was so unexpected, it took me a few moments to register what I was seeing.  Not only was there a spider alive and moving around in temperatures well below freezing, it was walking fast enough that I had a hard time following it with my camera.  I still don’t understand how it’s possible, but I saw it nonetheless (and have photographic evidence to back me up!)

A juvenile wolf spider walking along a frozen creek - Lancaster County, Nebraska.

When I got home, I did some research and found that it’s not unusual for wolf spiders to be active for much of the winter, particularly on days when temperatures are around or above freezing (although 18 degrees F is well below that!)  During the winter, wolf spiders feed on other tiny invertebrates that can handle cold temperatures – primarily snow fleas (aka springtails or Collembola).

This has become one of my favorite photos for a couple of reasons.  First, it’s a nice photographic image.  More importantly, it’s a fantastic reminder of how resilient and surprising nature is.

On that note…

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

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About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is an ecologist and Eastern Nebraska Program Director for The Nature Conservancy. He supervises the management and restoration of approximately 4,000 acres of land in central and eastern Nebraska - primarily along the central Platte River. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press.
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8 Responses to Photo of the Week – December 30, 2010

  1. Steve Clubine says:

    Resilient indeed. As a young biologist reviewing literature on greater prairie chickens, I found that at least 2% of their diet in the winter is insects. Most folks are more surprised than I but many insects over winter in grass clumps, especially little bluestem, and are active on sunny days.

    Thanks for sharing this with your readers.

    Steve

    • Chris Helzer says:

      That’s interesting! I knew there were insects that overwintered as adults, but I’ve never been able to find them hiding in the litter. I wrote an article on the subject this fall for NEBRASKAland magazine and was hoping to get some photos of little buggers underneath a pile of grass leaves. Looked and looked and couldn’t fine a one. I wonder if chickens find them when it’s cold or just wait until it warms up and they start moving. I suspect the latter.
      Which is cheating…

  2. James C. Trager says:

    I commend to you the writings of Bernd Heinrich on winter insects. In “In a patch of fireweed” he devotes some space to winter mothers that fly about in New England, at night, in late fall, at temperatures well below freezing. In his more recent “Winter world”, there is a wealth of stories on insects in winter, not the least being the immobile, dormant caterpillars that are the sole food of kinglets in the subboreal forests, allowing those tiny birds to remain active there through the winter, with a body temperature 5 deg. F. above our own!

  3. Victoria Ranua says:

    One of my most favorite winter memories was warming up before an important cross country ski race in northern Minnesota. I was skiing in the tracks. There on the white snow on the track in front of me I saw a spider. But I was moving so quick and had too much momentum to react… my ski zipped over the spider. I stepped out of the tracks and back-tracked to where the spider had been. Luckily, the spider was unharmed. I watched in amazement as the spider travelled to whereever it was headed. I didn’t do my normal warm-up routine that day, instead just enjoyed this gift I was witnessing. I took it as a sign of good luck… (Glad to know now I’m not the only one who who finds unexpected winter spiders amazing)

  4. Mel Wade says:

    Now that’s one cool picture.(No pun intended)Would of been a hard story to believe with out it.I have never seen anything like that in the dead of winter.Thanks for sharing.

  5. Harvey Halvorsen says:

    Chris:
    Your wide horizons epitomize the essenace of what prairie should be……..treeless.
    You’re benchmark sets the stage for prairie enthusiasts.

    thanks
    Harvey Halvorsen
    Wisconsin

  6. Pingback: Insects After a Hard Freeze | The Prairie Ecologist

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