Photo of the Week – October 1, 2015

This has been a week of big black spiders.  …In a good way.

First, my wife brought home a huge black wolf spider one of her biology students caught.  It stayed the weekend, and my stepson helped me photograph it on Sunday.  Later this week, I found the biggest jumping spider I’ve ever seen just outside the house at our Platte River Prairies field headquarters.  I had to photograph that too, of course…  Here are some of the photos of those spiders, and a little bit about how I got them.

Big wolf spider. Aurora, Nebraska.

A big wolf spider (Hogna aspersa).  Including its legs, it was about as long as a lip balm container.

Another look.

Another look.

To photograph the wolf spider, I utilized a long-standing technique of mine.  Some of you might remember a previous post I wrote about using a wheelbarrow as a wildlife photography studio.  I brought out the same wheelbarrow again for this spider, but had my stepson assist me by holding a diffuser (to soften the bright sunlight) and helping to keep the spider from getting away.  Having an assistant made the job much easier, though also much less humorous for any potential observers of the process.  (Though I’m still pretty sure my neighbors are keeping their eyes open for houses in better neighborhoods.  Between the pile of garter snakes beneath our backyard snake board and the giant hairy spider in our wheelbarrow, we’re not exactly everyone’s picture of the ideal neighbor!)

Atticus was a big help, both diffusing the light and keeping the spider contained.

Atticus was a big help, both diffusing the light and keeping the spider contained.

When I first saw the jumping spider, I was talking with our Hubbard Fellows and waiting for someone to meet us at the house.  It was perched on a Maximilian sunflower plant in the prairie garden.  I put it in a paper bag until I had time to look more carefully at it.  Later, I took the top of the sunflower plant the spider had been on, cut it off, stuck it into a pocket gopher mound, and carefully relocated the spider to it.  The Fellows then got to watch me squirm around on my hands and knees with my camera, trying to cajole the spider into posing for the camera.  We did promise the Fellows a wide range of experiences, I guess…

Big jumping spider (Phiddipus apacheanus on Maximilian sunflower. TNC Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

Big jumping spider (Phiddipus apacheanus) on Maximilian sunflower. TNC Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

Big jumping spider on Maximilian sunflower. TNC Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

Isn’t she cute?  She was nearly 3/4 inches long – the longest jumping spider I’ve seen.

I’ve spent more than 20 years looking at spiders and other invertebrates in Nebraska prairies, and I pride myself on being a fairly keen observer.  It’s an inspiring thing to me that I’d never seen either of these spider species before this week.  I hope I never stop finding new prairie species to marvel at.

…especially species that fit into my wheelbarrow!

Many thanks (once again) to Bill Beachly of Hastings College for his help identifying these spiders – which, by the way, he called “lovely ladies”.

Photo of the Week – August 21, 2015

How could you look at this spider and not think it’s cute?

Jumping spider. Helzer yard. Aurora, Nebraska.

This beautiful jumping spider was in my background last weekend.  I cajoled it onto a piece of cypress mulch and took its portrait.  The crazy green color in the background is the underside of a maple leaf I put beneath the wood chip.  Doesn’t it look like a cute little teddy bear?  (Or an Ewok?)

Unfortunately, many people will look at this photo and recoil.  I’ve gotten so used to handling and admiring spiders and other invertebrates that I forget most of the human population is much less comfortable with them.  I wish I could help; spiders (and other “creepy” invertebrates) are incredibly important, but it’s hard to have a conservation discussion about them when the person you’re talking to is covering their face in disgust and fear.

I get that many people have a very strong visceral reaction to spiders (and/or snakes), and I’m not trying to minimize or mock that.  In fact, I can relate.  My own initial reaction to seeing a snake in the wild is usually to take a quick step backward.  However, I’ve spent enough time getting comfortable with snakes that after that first backward step, my next move is usually to try to catch them to get a better look.  Experience helped me conquer my discomfort and turn it into admiration.  I think the same would help most people deal with snakes, spiders and others, but getting the majority of the public that kind of direct exposure and experience seems unlikely.

Here’s a compromise.  We don’t need everyone in the world to love spiders and snakes to the point where they try to cuddle every one they find.  Instead, it’d be great if people could just understand that spiders and snakes are critically important components of complex ecological systems rather than nasty creatures to stomp on or chop with shovels.

I don’t expect anyone to transform from spider hater to spider cuddler just because I say spiders are cute and ecologically valuable.  However, maybe I can nudge the ball in the right direction by pointing out some mythology about the danger of spiders.  Let’s start with this:  Almost no one reading this blog post will ever encounter a spider that will pose any danger to their health.  Seriously.  The vast majority of spiders can’t even bite you – their little fangs can’t penetrate your skin.  With very few exceptions reported “spider bites” turn out to be something else.  SPIDERS DON’T WANT TO HURT YOU.  I’ve handled countless spiders of many many varieties and have never had one act aggressively toward me, let alone try to bite me.

I’m not going to tell you there are no dangerous spiders.  There are a few species that can cause you harm, but the chances of running into one of them are pretty slim, especially in Nebraska and most other midwestern U.S states.  Really slim.  And if you do happen to encounter one, they’re not going to jump up and bite you on the throat.  I promise.  Also, they are not going to lay their eggs inside you so that your face (or other body part) swells up until it eventually bursts and thousands of tiny spiders come out.  Not going to happen.  That’s a particularly vivid, but completely false urban legend.

Spiders are just tiny creatures trying to survive in a dangerous world.  Just like you, though possibly cuter – I don’t know, I haven’t met all of you.  Maybe you don’t want to pick spiders up and play with them.  That’s cool.  But  maybe you don’t have to kill every spider you see because you figure it’s either them or you.  It’s not.  They’re just trying to find something to eat and avoid being eaten themselves.  Ignore them.  Or catch them in a cup and take them to a safe place.  Or, if you’re feeling really crazy, pick them up, put them on a wood chip and take pictures of their adorable little faces.

Here are two more links that talk about spider bites and other myths, in case you’re interested: