PURSEWEB SPIDERS ARE WORTH THE WALK

by Whit Gibbons

December 13, 2015

We turned a walk in the woods into a wildlife adventure without seeing a single live animal over 3 inches long. We saw some of the usual suspects one might encounter on a casual stroll through a mixed hardwood and pine forest on a sunny day in late fall. But we also learned that even the most mundane creatures have a story to tell. And Rudy Mancke, who was with us on the walk, knows the stories.

Rudy is the quintessential champion of the environment, well known for his long-running ETV show "Naturescene" and his public radio and TV program "NatureNotes." His revelations to viewers and listeners about the hidden secrets of the natural world are both entertaining and educational.

When Rudy arrived at our cabin in the woods, he immediately pointed out a bright yellow dot flitting through the brown-leaved forest landscape, first in sunshine then in shadow.

The cloudless sulphur was the only butterfly we saw, but as Rudy noted, the sighting was special. Cloudless sulphurs have been reported to hibernate as adults. This one had probably been dormant during the last week of cold weather, only to emerge with the warming trend to brighten up an otherwise drab scene.

Wildlife is to be enjoyed year round if you know what to look for and know the backstory. We captured an insect with long, fragile-looking legs and a needle-shaped body that we learned was a thread-legged bug, an ambush predator. This one was a specialist that preys mainly on what it finds in spider webs, a precarious profession.

Using its four back legs to walk deftly on the webs without sticking, the thread-legged bug jabs with its front legs to grab its victim, which are trapped insects, or maybe an occasional spider. A spider does not like to see a thread-legged bug in its parlor.

Spiders themselves are formidable carnivores, with jaws equipped with fangs at the tip. In all but a few, the fangs can inject venom while the powerful jaws keep prey from escaping. But many, such as the regal jumping spider, can be safely picked up.

Our grandson Parker correctly identified it, but when Rudy pulled out his ever-present magnifying glass we learned that it was a male because of the silvery coloring around its metallic-looking mouth.

Also we could see the large front pair of eyes characteristic of jumping spiders. We also learned to always have a magnifying glass on hand when walking through the woods.

The environmental adventure continued, sometimes fueled by questions from the family and sometimes by Rudy himself pointing out an overlooked life form. But I knew we had hit pay dirt when he exclaimed, "This is unbelievable! Do you know what this is?"

I fortunately kept my mouth shut and did not proclaim that it looked like a fungal covered limb as I marveled at Rudy's enthusiasm. It was the home of a purseweb spider, the first ever reported from the county where our land is and an exciting find even for Rudy Mancke.

The web looked like a footlong twig lying against the base of an oak tree. The columnar tube looked innocuous enough to a casual observer, but inside lived a monster, a type of tarantula.

Purseweb spiders have huge jaws and fangs that are called into play in an unusual fashion. When a fly or other insect crawls on the column of silk, the spider comes up the tube from belowground and attacks from the inside, biting through the webbing, grabbing the prey and pulling it inside. Pursewebs live up to five years, so we marked the spot for future observation.

We also found a coyote den with the fur of a possum and part of an armadillo outside, but the purseweb spider took the prize. Any walk in the woods can be a memorable experience, even if you see nothing that is more than a few inches long. Just remember to carry a magnifying glass with you.

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