Monthly Archives: April 2012

Meet the spider: Pholcidae

We three Dads

The cellar spider has a wonderful gothic, childlike, shivery myth attached to it. Have you heard? Omigod, the daddy long-legs has the most poisonous venom ever discovered! but, like, its little fangs can’t penetrate human skin so nobody even knows, so you could be totally killed by it, but nobody ever is.

This wacky idea actually seems to be dying out, even among the swaggering schoolchildren who answer most Internet queries. “Mythbusters” got around to addressing it a while back (yes, Adam got bit. No, he didn’t die. Maybe he exaggerated a bit about the bite, which he didn’t even show, but how long can a camera show nothing happening?). It probably takes a hit Discovery program to begin to turn the tide of Internet nonsense, especially when it comes to such a durable and colorful tale.

The cellar spider, one of several dudes dubbed “daddy,” looks like something made out of mini-marshmallows and pipe cleaners. A spindly, fragile thing that offers the most florid display of timidity in nature: if you touch its web, it trembles. Think of that, you “Lord of the Flies” schoolkids with your misspelled boasts about pulling off its legs, one at a time. It just shivers and waits for you to go away.

Who’s your daddy, long-legs? Now about that name. You have to brush past the stiff angry online Commenters who shout that the daddy long-legs is NOT a spider or else the daddy long-legs is TOO a poizinus spider and one bit my cusin and her elbo fell off and get to the place where it’s clear that “daddy long-legs” means three different animals:


GOOD VIBRATIONS: a cellar spider.

1. A spider. Two common species (very common, actually) of the family Pholcidae that live in my area are Pholcus phalangioides and Holocnemus pluchei, the latter known as the marbled cellar spider. Neither belongs here; they’re among those pushy Eurotrash species that arrived at some unknown time, eclipsing the native spiders. And they really like it here.



WALK ON BY: a harvestman.


2. An arachnid called a harvestman. Strange little striding bug, it looks like the invader vehicles you imagined the first time you read “War of the Worlds,” with a tiny gondola suspended at the vertex of eight immensely long, thin legs. Not a spider, not venomous. It eats everything in the garden but can’t bite you. Defends itself by making a funny smell.



COME FLY WITH ME: a crane fly.

3. A crane fly. California has more than 400 species of this bug, which turns from a grub in the ground to a flying insect. Harmless, though it resembles a giant mosquito. Scientists identify a larva by looking at its rear end, through which it breathes, and which is decorated with eye-popping, grotesque patterns that look like Mardi Gras masks (below). In my family we called crane flies gallinippers, a name I thought my own daddy made up because he has a knack for wordplay (big mosquito = gallon nipper), but I learned that not only is this a folk name, but “gallinipper” is also used for an actual huge bloodsucking mosquito and not just the innocent crane fly.

This is one crane fly’s southern exposure! Aw, I’m gonna have nightmares now. (Nephrotoma virescens illustration © Chen Young)

Also it’s a bluegrass band, one that proudly proclaims “The Gallinippers is on Facebook!” And so they is.

Also, there’s a silly poem:

. . . Then Mr. Daddy Long-legs

And Mr. Floppy Fly

Rushed downward to the foamy sea

With one sponge-taneous cry;

And there they found a little boat,

Whose sails were pink and gray;

And off they sailed among the waves,

Far, and far away.

(Edward Lear, “The Daddy Long-Legs and the Fly”)

The cellar spider is the dad I know well. It lives in a world of dim sunlight, sawdust, splinters, old storage smells. Your basement, attic, or garage. Or, if you’re casual about housecleaning, the no-dad’s-land behind a desk or sideboard or bookcase. The spider makes a messy web that it’s agreeable to sharing with fellow spiders, where they all hang upside-down, snagging flying bugs, vibrating like little cell phones when disturbed.

Even the pest-control folks, always eager to suggest ways of annihilating local fauna, have nothing bad to say about the cellar spider except that the webs are “unsightly.” It was still worth several people’s time to write about the best ways to keep those dirty dads under control, though (hint: vacuuming and judicious use of pesticide).

The only thing I dislike about Daddy is that he poops in corners. Any nook occupied by a cellar spider is going to have dark-and-light spatters on the floor or shelf below. It’s not the easiest of spooges to clean up, either, and it makes the surroundings look drear and grimy. The cellar spider, not the tarantula or widow, is the spider that should have the role of Halloween gloom-meister, since its presence indicates a place disused or abandoned or otherwise atmospheric. Otherwise it’s about as spooky as a kitten.

It’s not scary and (unlike a jumping spider) it can’t dance—in sharp contrast to Fred Astaire, title character of the silky 1955 musical “Daddy Long Legs.” Watch as the grand old hoofer ensnares young Leslie Caron in a web of dance, for which she is grateful and adorable and extremely French. Sweet story. It surprised me to learn how many versions of that film were made in the last century, with different actors as the daddy. Sometimes the leggy leading man—harmless, never venomous—snares Mary Pickford, sometimes Janet Gaynor, once an anime orphan, once even (gasp) Shirley Temple, though in that version (“Curly Top,” 1935) Daddy does the nuptial dance with the moppet’s grown-up sister, not Shirley (*whew*).

What do those old movies have to do with cellar spiders? Nothing, though for once it’s nice to associate a spider with a silly fable not having to do with gangrene. And by the way, I’d take Leslie Caron (“Daddy Long Legs”) over Theresa Russell (“The Black Widow”) any day.



Meet the spider: Cyclosa conica

The little hoarder

Not even the wussiest spider hater should hate wee Cyclosa. This one is twice hidden from fearful eyes: first, because she’s nothing but a crumb in the garden, smaller than small (6mm). Second, because she puts herself in an unobtrusive web that she’s filled with junk, and hides therein. She’s a disguise spider and an artist who works with found materials. Humble, too: no impersonating of hornets or ants, no lurking inside a tunnel and then thundering out, nothing vivid or glossy. If she’s around, the only clue might be a grimy bit of silk connecting a plant and its pot. The miniature hunter hides there, in all her trashy glory, awaiting even tinier prey.

Nope. Nooooobody here. Just us dust bunnies and random specks.

I cross paths with Cyclosa rarely, usually when she’s set up shop below the leaves of a container plant I’ve placed at eye level. Walking by, I glance at the shrub to see how it’s doing, and notice this six-inch line that looks like a strand of Christmas-tree tinsel, if you decorated with burrito wrappers and empty water bottles and apple cores. Upon closer inspection it reveals itself to be a dun-colored spider, her abdomen a tiny seashell, her legs all bunched around her face as if caught mid-peekaboo, waiting among a collection of dead bugs and other debris. For a long time I thought this web was just lint or dog hair or some other kind of yard snot.

Haven’t looked closely enough to see whether she’s Cyclosa conica, a cosmopolitan species well established in the Northern Hemisphere, or Cyclosa turbinata, also seen in this part of the Bay Area. It takes a very practiced eye to tell them apart, a familiar problem in spider-watching. Conica and turbinata are both pretty much the same name, ’scuse my weak Latin: cone-shaped. In lurk mode therefore they look like miniature hermit crabs.

Cyclosas are pocket-sized members of the orb weaver family, the esteemed clan that includes those graceful, gumdrop-shaped beauties with the huge, circular nighttime webs no one likes to walk into. Cyclosa means the turning spider, a name she somehow copped from her more magnificent relatives and hoarded to herself. Such are naming conventions. But the works of Cyclosa do have the same sophistication, writ small, as those of her big relations. Her little clothesline of dirty laundry is part of a larger, less obvious wheel, built from multiple types of silk that catch insect prey and signal the spider to come running. Like all web-building spiders she sits and listens with her body to the vibrations that come her way, pivoting toward movement, plucking lines to see if it’s something worth charging out of concealment for, attacking and subduing and swaddling the prey if so.

Humans try to plumb the reasoning of little animals that aren’t even aware of themselves. The motives of Cyclosa and other relatives that decorate their webs with objects, zigzag silken lines, even what appear to be writing (“SOME PIG”) are surprisingly hard to pin down. Spider researchers argue about this. What combination of attraction and repulsion do the decorations perform? Ponder the fact that at least one kind of Cyclosa, this one observed on an island off the coast of Taiwan, builds exact decoys of itself and its egg sacs. It attracts more predators than the standard-issue Cyclosa, yes, but it also fools them more reliably. Come and get me! taunts the clever hoarder. Yet she comes out ahead.

"Trash line spider"? I beg to differ. It's called recycling. (Rhithrogena22 photo; licensed under Creative Commons)

In true evolutionary fashion Cyclosa doesn’t need to know that the cluttered front yard where she leaves the dead husks is protecting her from birds, wasps, or annoyances like me. Her ancestors just had to have behaved as she does. And they passed on their genes for surviving amid a tiny pile of trash.



Always with the silk

But wouldn’t “The Spinnerets” be a great name for a band?

Comes more news of the wonders of spider silk. Writing about the magical silk is a cottage industry among news people and, it seems, scientists hunting for breakthroughs in materials science. This one researcher has managed, with the usual horrendous amount of effort (mostly on the spiders’ part) to collect enough silk to make a set of violin strings. The strings supposedly sing sweet and mellow, suggesting musical horizons yet to be explored, though no one has yet done the dastardly double-blind study that might disprove this claim, as double-blinds tend to do. Does the “Merry Widow Waltz” really sound different if played on the web of a genuine widow? Listen for yourself.

It’s too bad the silk didn’t come from a violin spider, the nickname for Loxosceles reclusa. Then we could rehabilitate the shy recluse a bit, balancing those gory photos of purported recluse bites you see on the Internet with more peaceful imagery, perhaps of Carnegie Hall or Yo-Yo Ma. Sure, I know the difference between a cello and a violin! The difference is many, many more spiders.

So while Paganini saws away in the background, let us contemplate silk. I saw some other news recently, about a scientist who reported that spider silk has wondrous properties of thermal conductivity, which could throw open the door to innovative insulation, clothing—who knows what. You already know the part about spider silk being “stronger than steel,” though Kevlar is really the fiber to beat (two guesses which would be easier to manufacture). And a few years back some folks wove shimmering golden cloth (below) from the work of more than a million unpaid, non-union golden orb weavers [Nephila inaurata madagascariensis] in Madagascar, who were last seen holding four protest signs apiece (leaving four legs for walking the picket line), Occupying a dusty corner of a museum, and demanding a press conference.

"Ewwwwww!" said the model, five seconds after this photo was taken.

But I want to ponder why there are so many stories about silk at all. You might say because of its commercial potential. Sure, the natural world is full of potential market blockbusters, some of them also humble and easy to find (like aspirin, distilled from tree  bark). Yet this evades the point that at some point in our dim, money-grubbing, lair-lining past, we started looking at animals and plants as things to be used not just in the immediate sense (club the foe with that tree limb and tie him up with this boa) but in the questing sense. Now they all have potential. Living things are made of parts and products. If we just ferret them out and sift them in the lab and have a really productive working lunch with the marketing department, that potential turns into cash and other good things.

I wouldn’t disparage that urge even if I could. No one has less romance for cave-living and/or whistling through the dark alley of microbial predators. Nasty, brutish, and short are my idea for the names of pit bulls, not a description of the life I’d like to lead. What I do disparage is the myopia that comes with a rigidly commercial view. Spiders get it pretty bad, and partly this is why. Their only redeeming feature, from the find-it-and-squish-it crowd, is that they might be coaxed into squirting out something valuable, little cash registers on the cobweb. I can’t count the number of times well-meaning people (and some not so well-meaning) have suggested that spiders not be flattened “because they eat bugs.” Bless you, bless you, lords of the earth, for giving this ’umble arachnid a reason to exist!

Milked, bilked, and de-silked. Where's Woody Guthrie when you need him? (Bernard Gagnon photo; licensed under Creative Commons)

With that in mind, I confess to satisfaction when these blue-sky lab products fail to come to pass. Reports usually dribble off into a comment about how tough it would be to scale up a spider’s work. Ha and yes! Rube Goldberg himself would be hard-pressed to invent a spider sweatshop like the one that imprisoned the golden orb weavers (right) in their little satanic mill (listen! They’re singing “We shall overcome,” with violin accompaniment).

The only success in that vein I’ve read about is the scientists who transferred a spider-silk-making gene into a goat, persuading the goat to secrete silklike proteins in its milk. That might work out, though I observe that it involves transferring a useful spider property into another organism rather than harnessing a spider itself. Transgenic can do that. Nature is more stubborn. How disappointing, then, that these unwelcome animals are so indifferent to redeeming themselves through the marketplace. (And apparently even the “spider goat” investors have gone udders-up.)

Keep an eye out for that binary status when spider stories cross your path. The terror and confusion over spiders as a creature will often peg the fear-o-meter (especially among ye excitable Brits). Then the scientific crowd will amble in with the earnest hope that if you all can keep from napalming every spider you see, we’ll be able to at least make a little money out of them.

Nobody has to defend ponies as worthwhile animals in their own right, or sloths, or otters. Especially otters, good god, wish I’d locked up the tchotchke patent on otters when sailors still thought of them as floating rats … The web-of-life murmuring comes easy for the pretty ones you can turn into turquoise T-shirts and trinkets, doesn’t it? But spiders—give a spider its due today. Admit that he or she has a life worth living for its own sake—or because it’s a graceful big branch on the Tree of Life, a success story tens of millions of years in the making, or even, if you really must be so damn reductive, because it can make mincemeat out of those mosquitoes and flies that bug you so much. That, at least, is a job fit for a spider.

* * *

Now, this I like. They’re trying to crack the chemical code for spider venom. What a funny headline: “Spider venom to be tested for pesticide potential.” Like saying, “Wheat has potential to be food.”


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Posted by on April 4, 2012 in Spider science