The Spider LaBORatory


Just like a birder actively seeks out birds, I’m always on the look out for spiders. Most of the time, I look passively meaning I’m not using a sweep net or other trapping technique. Sometimes, the spiders simply find me. I have been that weirdo in the middle of the store aisle trying to palm-scoop a defenseless spider. Yep. I rarely leave the house without some type of vial or small container to catch spiders. If I can’t identify the spider right away, I’ll bring it home to the “LaBORatory” and either house it into a more adequate container or pop it under the microscope to try and identify it. I don’t use a killing jar. I prefer the spiders to be alive. A killing jar is usually a small vial with alcohol in it. The spider dies almost immediately in the alcohol and once dead, they can be manipulated (and will stay STILL) more easily under the microscope. I like to observe the behavior and life cycles of spiders; how they eat, what their “personality” is, and I take a whole bunch of notes. I check the spiders daily and when one dies, that’s when I can really get into seeing what kind of spider it is. This is a tedious, sometimes frustrating process. If you recall your taxonomy from middle school biology, you’ll remember Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, and FINALLY, species. A more experienced spider enthusiast once told me to know the spider families is really good (as far as ID), to know it’s genus is even better, and to know the species is awesome. Sometimes, all I know with confidence is that a spider is a spider (silk web, 2 body parts, 8 legs) but I have NO idea what kind it is. Some helpful hints are eye arrangement, if it’s oddly shaped, color, type of web, and where it was found. But it can get more intense when I’m trying to figure out, for instance, what specific wolf spider (Lycosidae family) I have when there are over 60 genera and 200 species in the wolf spider family! At that point, a low power (40x – 80x) dissecting scope and the spider ID bible: Spiders of North America, -an identification manual published by the American Arachnological Society (AAS) is an absolute must. I check out and cross reference with Common Spiders of North Amercia by Richard Bradley. I’ll also read any research papers related to that particular spider. Once I am sure of the spiders identity, I’ll preserve it in an alcohol-filled vial with a label and add it to my collection. If that doesn’t pan out and I’m still stumped, I’ll take a clear, close-up pic of the specimen next to a ruler and send it to the AAS facebook group for someone to ID. Those guys are really awesome! I use the alcohol specimens as a reference as needed and I bring them to presentations and classes for visuals. You can’t pin spiders like one would with a butterfly collection because spiders shrivel up and become brittle when they dry out, especially their abdomens, and being able to clearly see the female reproductive organs (found on the underside of the abdomen) is key for species ID.

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The LIVE spiders are a bit more interesting. I reuse plastic containers to house them and especially love the large Utz pretzel containers. If it’s a ground spider, a low container with more surface area is good. If it’s a web builder, I’ll add some twigs for attachment sites in a taller container. I use a variety of substrates to try and mimic the habitat where the spider was found and try to control humidity by using containers with more or less air holes. Then I monitor them. I use a spray bottle or a pipette to add water. Some spiders require more moisture than others. I’ve found that out through trial and error…lots of errors.

I call it “Spider TV” during feeding time and all of the containers are different stations. I use flightless fruit flies, crickets, feeder roaches, and any hapless stink bug or fly that wanders into the VERY WRONG house. Some of the spiders chase their prey like cats (the action channel!). Others stay completely still and pounce at the last minute. Some of the web builders wrap their bug slowly while others can make a mummy out of a fly in 10 seconds flat!

I have caught gravid spiders (not on purpose – SURPRISE!) and watched the whole process of egg sac to spiderling to dispersal (I just take the container outdoors and let em go). I’ve introduced male spiders to female and watched them mate (that’s a whole other blog) and then kept the little ones until they started catching their own food. One time, I did this with Trochosa terricola, a medium-sized wolf spider. Shortly thereafter the spiderlings were feeding on their own, I released them into the backyard. The American Robin never struck me as such a giant, ravenous predator until that day. I’ve also been bummed when spiders I’ve grown very fond of die. Most species around here live for 1 or 2 years so my collection is ever-changing and I am ever-learning!

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