Hubbard Fellowship Blog – Mysterious Strands of Silk

This post is written and illustrated by Katharine Hogan, one of our Hubbard Fellows.  

In November, I visited the Valentine National Wildlife Refuge on Highway 83 south of the town of Valentine. There had been a burn several weeks previously at the refuge, and I enjoyed a little time wandering around and observing the effects of the fire on the vegetation and exposed sandy soil. In patches, some brave grasses had re-sprouted in defiance of the cooling autumn temperatures. In other areas, the patchy fire had not burned hot enough to do more than singe the thicker sunflower and forb stalks, and everywhere the rodents had wasted no time in churning up the exposed sand, leaving clean, cool piles in stark contrast with the surrounding black ash from the burned vegetation.

I had only been walking around for a few minutes when I came across something that, though strange at first, eventually astonished me in its scope across the landscape. I noticed a patch of flower stalks with some threads of spider silk, strung out from stalk to stalk, not forming an actual web but nonetheless running roughly parallel, using the burned stems as support. Upon further examination, however, I realized that this was not an isolated occurrence within the burn, and that this same patterning of silk strands stretched off in both directions across acres and acres of the burned vegetation.

Although these pictures don’t and can’t really accurately represent the scope of this phenomena, I was able to capture a couple that show, if nothing else, the impressive amount of silk that had been put out for some unknown reason by, one must guess, some very industrious arachnids.

g

The lighting makes it somewhat challenging to see, but the density of the webs can be best seen in the upper center of the photograph, and extends outwards from there.  Photo by Katharine Hogan.

My knowledge regarding spiders and their habits is utterly basic. I have a high appreciation for them as fascinating creatures and as ecological players, but my ongoing efforts of understanding have simply not focused on them, focusing instead on plants in part because plants don’t, you know, suddenly relocate on you for inscrutable reasons. At the time, I could only wildly guess as to what caused this phenomenon to occur. Apparently it involved a presumably large number of arachnids deciding more or less in tandem that changing location was a really good idea, but why? And what type of spiders? Were they moving towards or away from something? Was this movement related to the recent fire? What about the decreasing autumn temperatures and daylight?

I did a little digging and came up with a couple potential situations that could describe at least in part what I saw. As always, I would welcome the insights of readers of this post with a better idea of what’s going on! I would love some help in solving this web of mysteries.

This was a typical amount of webbing that had been constructed on each of the thousands of plants across the section of the burn.

This was a typical amount of silk on each of the thousands of plants across the section of the burn.

I found references to spiders of two families that sometimes exhibit tendencies that could explain silk strands such as these. Jumping spiders (family Salticidae) leave “safety lines” of silk behind them as they jump between plants; however, this does not explain the massive amount of silk, nor why it was all aligned in the same direction across the landscape.

The other possible explanation I found was with regards to spiders, not exclusively but predominantly of the genus Erigone, that, according to a 2005 article in the Bulletin of Entomological Research, will sometimes display what is called “mass ballooning”, where large numbers of spiders in tandem migrate short distances across landscapes, leaving behind “spectacular amounts of silk on the ground” (J.R. Bell et al.). The reasons for this behavior are still largely not understood, but hypothesized explanations have included sudden changes in temperature, humidity, and other factors largely dependent upon the microclimate of the population in question.

Several other studies during the 70s and 80s also supplied some evidence that the propensity of spider populations to balloon was correlated with the “predictability” or stability of their habitats. In the case of Greenstone (1982), populations that selected for habitats subject to more frequent change, e.g. open spaces near water sources, were more likely to balloon than species that favored prairie habitats. If habitat changes are positively correlated with the likelihood of a spider population ballooning, could this suggest the recent prescribed burn as a causal factor in the event whose aftermath I witnessed at the wildlife refuge?

I honestly don’t have a clue. Other interests and appreciations aside, I am very much a “plant person” and feel uncomfortable coming to any conclusions regarding a group of organisms about which I know so fabulously little. I do know, however, that the scope of the phenomena I witnessed was truly impressive, and thus I gained a little more appreciation and awareness of the unseen lives of the tiny critters around us. As always, input on the matter would be much appreciated. If any of you readers have any insights on the matter, please let us all know in the comments! Thanks!

 

Sources cited:

Bohan, David A., et al. (2005) Ballooning dispersal using silk: World fauna, phylogenies, genetics and models. Bulletin of Entomological Research 95, 69-114.

Greenstone, M.H. (1982) Ballooning frequency and habitat predictability in two wolf spider species (Lycosidae: Pardosa). Florida Entomologist 65, 83–89.

 

 

Advertisements

About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.
This entry was posted in Prairie Insects, Prairie Natural History, Prairie Photography and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Hubbard Fellowship Blog – Mysterious Strands of Silk

  1. rmssnacademy says:

    Could this be caterpillar silk? The mass threads between the small branches of the plants reminds me of how I have seen caterpillars form silk on plants.

  2. kcarlbot8 says:

    Reading this at the moment. Now that I think of it, it is more reminiscent of spider mite silk production — and they are one of three silk producers that also balloon. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/7862775_Ballooning_dispersal_using_silk_World_fauna_phylogenies_genetics_and_models.

  3. rmssnacademy says:

    Now that I think of it, it is more reminiscent of spider mite silk — and they are one of three that silk balloon. Reading this:https://www.researchgate.net/publication/7862775_Ballooning_dispersal_using_silk_World_fauna_phylogenies_genetics_and_models

  4. John says:

    Have you tried searching the WEB for answers?

  5. Paul Brewer says:

    Such spider migration events are fairly common Katharine, and I was out and about for one this fall here in central Illinois. I wish I could attach some photos as I was able to get several good ones of the event. We probably drove through an area of roughly 400 square miles that day, and silks and little spiders were everywhere – – and I would guess the area covered with silk was actually much larger. My truck antenna was covered from top to bottom with silk “balloon” and tiny spiders!

    Here are sources for a little more information.

    http://www.livescience.com/7247-fly-spiders-check-weather.htmlhttps://mdc.mo.gov/conmag/1998/10/-and-away

  6. shoreacres says:

    Here’s another photo of the same phenomenon: this time from a photographer in England whom I follow.

    I varnish boats for a living, which places me in a watery environment, indeed. This is a regular phenomenon here. About twice a year, as I recall — and always in autumn — there will be a great “ballooning.” The lifelines, the standing rigging — every thing that could catch a strand of silk — does. Sometimes it’s possible to see the baby spiders, and sometimes not. But it’s quite a sight. They can be so lthick, it’s almost like a silk curtain hanging in the air.

  7. Dave says:

    I’ve seen this many, many times over the past 50 years. I think it is most prevalent when the conditions are just right for the spiders to go sailing or ballooning. They all sense the right conditions at the same time, so they all move at the same time, taking advantage of the same light wind blowing in the same direction, hence the silk strands are all oriented in the same direction.

  8. J. A. Raasch says:

    I observed a similar phenomenon two days after a mid-April prescribed burn. There were strands of silk scattered across tens of acres of burned grass. Very low to the ground and difficult to see unless the sun was low in the sky behind them. I assumed some sort of invertebrate hunkered down and survived the fire. Could a new population of organisms move into and cover an area so quickly and thoroughly? I’ll follow the comments to learn more. Thank you for posting.

PLEASE COMMENT ON THIS POST!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s