Myrmecos

Here’s a new excuse…

My lovely wife Jo-anne has been in South America the last couple weeks doing field research on Argentine ants while I tend the home fires here in Tucson. I hope she finds it in her to forgive me for the post I am about to write.

Earlier today I got an email explaining why I’m not getting my much-awaited phone call:

I’d call but there aren’t any phones at this locutorio and we’re on our way out to look for social spiders.”

Excuse me? Social spiders? More important than me, your needy hubby?

Ok, I grant that social spiders are pretty cool, if a bit creepy. I remember those things from when I lived in South America. They spun massive webs that spanned tree-tops, anchored to the ground with tow lines as strong as steel cables. I nearly died from shock the first time I saw them. I had accidently walked under their tree, a large Enterolobium, and looked up to find the sky speckled with thousands of grape-sized spiders, all sharing a web tens of meters across. It still gives me the willies to think about.

A few years later I had a camera handy when a Paraguayan friend and I drove past what looked like a small body caught up in Shelob’s web. We stopped.

bolivar-contemplates-the-spiders.jpg

Turned out not to be a single body, but hundreds of little hairy bodies that had fastened several branches into a little cradle. Social spiders!

social-spiders.jpg

From close in:

a-nightmare-of-spiders.jpg

Social spiders are something of a mystery. They don’t share all the traits that have tipped the more famously social ants, bees, wasps, and termites into cooperative living. Yet it appears that nearly a dozen independent lineages of spiders have converged on a cooperative lifestyle. There must be something advantageous in it for the spiders, and that question continues to attract inquisitive scientists like Jo-anne.

Still, which do you think is better? Me? Or that twitching arachnoid mass of legs? And anyway, wouldn’t calling me be *safer* than going out looking for those things?

Comments

  1. #1 Christopher Taylor
    January 30, 2008

    Hmmm…. Have you ever read John Wyndham’s Web?

  2. #2 myrmecos
    January 30, 2008

    I haven’t. Would reading it make me more likely, or less likely, to want to walk back into that web?

  3. #3 Christopher Taylor
    January 30, 2008

    Considerably less, I’d say. A bunch of settlers establish themselves on an uninhabited Pacific island, only to discover that the reason why it was uninhabited was the enormous colony of aggressive social spiders that had wiped out most higher life forms there – and was getting hungry.

  4. #4 Snail
    January 30, 2008

    You know, I’m not arachnophobic (goodness knows, I share my house with enough saucer-sized huntsman spiders to cure me of that) but your description of the silken canopy … I’m not sure I can cope anymore!

  5. #5 Jumping Jack
    January 31, 2008

    Never laughed so much in such a long time.

  6. #6 brenda
    July 22, 2009

    OH MY GOD!!!!….r those spiders black widows cuz dude i would be freaked out those nest things r freaking creepy dude!…….man i got the chills!*_*

  7. #7 victoria
    September 30, 2009

    i am aracnophobic and that is creeeepy im shaking with chills , if i had to live around all of those id realllly ba freaking out bad screaming like a banchy and never going out side by my self lol. i hate spiders.ewwwwwwwww

  8. #8 greg
    April 3, 2010

    Well i live in athens actually in the north suburbs near pendeli mount (in Melissia – place not affected by last year worst blaze in attica history) and there is actually a colony of test spiders Cyrtophora citricola in my backyard near a lemon tree. Therea are up to 30 now small and midium size and is very rare as melissia is a city but with enough parks with pine trees. I don’t know if the tent spider is actually a social one but they live in colonies. I believe that in the summer the lemon tree will be overun. The colony survived through the winter which was a very mild one. Probably you came across a colony like that in south america as you explain but i guess there should be no worries since they are harmless even beneficial to agriculural trees. Some times in such colonies there are orb weavers and argiopes not very close though and pholcid spiders (daddy long legs) so they take advantage of any benefits. Still tent spiders are not social since they dont hunt together and share prey…. but there exist species like that in south america in the tropics where spiders look alike the agelaine spider (funnel webs) may perform such tasks and the sight would be like a holywood scene…. a perfect place for biologists and arachnologists…Just imagine a place that has limited sunlight (a cave ) where several square meters were of funnel web silk. Scary indeed but exciting at the same time…

    Anyway a pleasant easter…