Friday, August 12, 2011

Voted “Meanest Common Name Ever”

Many amazing animals on God’s green earth have been vilified, abhorred, hated, persecuted by humans, needlessly—out of fear and ignorance. Out of prejudice, and in complete denial of our own human wickedness and insensitivity.

Spiders generally fall into this group.

And the people who “like” spiders tend to fit into a sort of “type” (trust me, I saw a lot of these guys when I worked at the pet store)—these are the same people who think piranhas, snakes, and any other seemingly “ferocious” predators are “cool.” I used to get the idea that these guys (and they usually were “guys”) didn’t “love” their pets so much as they liked the “bad boy” image those pets conferred upon their owners. (Probably “compensating.” Am I right—?)

But I contend that with a better understanding of their biology, and a willingness to translate their lifeways into the kinds of issues that matter to us—our children’s welfare, our survival, the pain of hunger—we can see them not “just” as predators but as animals more or less like all the other animals, ourselves included.

So today I’ve been thinking about a particular species of spider—a running spider, a wolf spider—that has gotten stuck with a most repellent name. Even the scientific name is unfortunate: Rabidosa rabida. You can probably guess right now what that means.

Here’s the common name: Rabid wolf spider. Rabid? Rabid?? It’s just silly. Invertebrates like spiders don’t carry or suffer from rabies; mammals (like ourselves) do.

I haven’t been able to find an explanation for the Latin name or the first word of the common name. So your guess is a good as mine. Meanwhile, our forever calling it “rabid” can’t do anything to help the PR efforts of this robust, athletic hunter.

For lots of interesting pictures of this species, click here.

The “wolf spider” name is fairly apt. This family of spiders, the Lycosidae, are swift runners. They don’t build webs; instead, like wolves, they have to chase down their prey on the ground. (A better metaphor, however, is a cat—for these spiders are intensely solitary and don’t hunt in wolflike “packs.”)

Wolf spiders, you might be interested to know, are lie-in-wait predators, kind of like pikes, cheetahs, and herons. They sit relatively still and quietly wait for prey to wander by—and then Boom! They’ve got ’em! Nailed! (Duck, turkey, squirrel, and deer hunters do about the same thing, only they “cheat” and use weapons—imagine how hard it would be if they had to chase after and grab their quarry!)

I think wolf spiders’ instinctive hunting strategy is what accounts for their sudden, jerky, fast movements. They’re not trying to be scary—it’s just that their movements only seem to have an “on” and “off” switch—stop, and GO!

When they’re hungry, they have to be able to distinguish between their prey and the “scenery,” which is why they sit so still: They’re looking for motion. Think of a cat frozen in place, zeroing on the movements near your birdfeeder!

Wolf spiders have pretty good eyesight, unlike the spiders that hang around in webs hoping to net and truss their prey. All wolf spiders have the same arrangement of eyes: On the lowest part of their “face,” a row of four little eyes; then a little higher, two quite large eyes, sort of like goggles; then, higher still and facing more to the sides, two medium-sized eyes.

Wolf spiders, by the way, can often be located as you walk around at night, if you hold a flashlight against your temple, right next to your eye, and beam the light parallel to your gaze, against the ground—these spiders have eyeshine like cats and rabbits, and their little “goggles” will reflect back at you like tiny mirrors.

One of the most remarkable things about wolf spiders, however, is the intensity of their maternal instinct. Female wolf spiders lay their eggs and enclose them into an egg sac, then attach the egg sac to the end of their abdomen, against the spinnerets. They drag this sac of eggs everywhere they go, even when they hunt. The egg sac can be almost as big as themselves, and nearly as heavy, too.

They are famous for the intensity of their search, should the egg sac fall off for some reason. They have been described as “frantic” as they hunt for their eggs; if they don’t find the egg sac, they sometimes instinctively attach another rounded object, like an empty snail shell, in its place.

The maternal instinct doesn’t end there, oh no. When it’s time for her eggs to hatch, the wolf spider allows all two or three hundred of the tiny spiderlings to scamper up her legs and onto her body, where for the next six months or so, they ride around, safe, on her abdomen. Again, while she hunts and carries on her life.

This doesn’t seem very “rabid” to me—it’s actually more like “family values”: a mother carefully tending to her children, the way nature intended.

The reason why I’m on this subject is that yesterday, while I was doing a bunch of yard work, I uncovered a female “rabid wolf spider” and her egg case. It was like a pale blue marble. It was about the size of a blueberry, or a green pea, and about as heavy.

In her haste (I was getting rid of an old brush pile that was her home), she dropped the egg case as she darted up the nearby walnut tree. I continued my work, figuring she would either come back for it or not.

About fifteen minutes later, after she’d gotten over her shock, she crept tentatively back down the tree trunk, retracing the steps of her flight, heading to where she’d dropped her egg sac. And indeed she hunted for it. Carefully. She was pretty wigged out at having her brush pile utterly “disappeared.”

But she was evidently quite relieved upon rediscovering her eggs. She put her whole body over them. She seemed to be checking them out. She carried them around. She did not reattach them, however.

I took photos of her, but when I stood to continue my yard work, she ran away again, abandoning the egg case. It was still there when we went in for the night. This morning, it was gone.

Two scenarios come immediately to mind: either she came back and retrieved them (which is my hope, since it was my doings that separated her from her eggs in the first place), or else some critter came along and enjoyed some spider caviar. That wouldn’t be such a bad fate, I guess, since the eggs would at least have done some good, somehow. It would be sad if they just rotted or got squished or something.

But I’ll keep my eyes open for her; if she did reclaim her egg sac, surely in a few weeks the eggs will have hatched and she’ll be walking around with her babies. And that would be pretty cool to see.

But we seriously need to come up with a better name for this creature—“rabid wolf spider” isn’t fair, and it isn’t kind. We can’t change the scientific name, but common names are, by definition, mutable, regional, fickle, inventive. Anyone have any suggestions?

Ummm, for the characteristic stripes . . . “Bacon-backed wolf spider”—? (Who doesn’t love bacon, even in secret?)

“Chocolate-striped wolf spider”? Chocolate has a lot of happy associations!

“Skechers wolf spider”? They remind me of those spiffy brown-striped casual sneakers so popular these days. And they are definitely a running spider . . .

Or . . . well, what do you think?


Randy Tindall said...

I enjoyed this article, having photographed these great spiders before. Somewhere in my thousands of slides, I have pictures of the babies riding around on Mom. I'm going to have to find it and scan it. Something about spiders. I used to be terrified of them as a kid. Now I'm fascinated by them. I'm working up an article on a Trashline Orb Weaver I just found in our backyard. Smaller than yours. But trashier.


Julianna Schroeder said...

"Trashline orb weaver"! Now, what kind of name is that? I think that arachnids need better PR, all around, starting with their names! We call our "trashline orb weavers" *cyclosas*! Which probably is from the Greek for "trashline spider," but at least it sounds more elegant!

Especially when the "trash" is actually the dry, drained corpses of all her previous meals, suspended vertically in a macabre line . . .

I admit that spiders do still kind of give me the willies. But I'm capable of growth. I'm preparing a post about one of the ways I have successfully battled my mild arachnophobia--stay tuned.

Thanks for the comment!