Category Archives: Salticidae (jumping spiders)

Have Yourself a Spidery Little Christmas

Come into my parlor, my pavuchky

If you were born in a barn, there were probably spiders nearby. I wonder if that’s the real reason for the folk tales about Christmas spiders. But in the legends these spiders aren’t hanging curtains for Baby Jesus, or weaving the swaddling clothes or making sure the manger is bug-free. Instead they’re scurrying around a family’s humble Christmas tree, admiring the ornaments and leaving behind silk strands as they do, and when the Christ child arrives to bless the home, he turns the cobwebs into silver and gold tinsel.

O Tannenbaum, O Tannenbaum, I don't know the word for "spider" . . . (pictured: festive decor from the Dusty Raven Gallery,

O Tannenbaum, O Tannenbaum, I don’t know the German word for “spider” . . . (pictured: festive decor from the Dusty Raven Gallery,


Wonderful! And it resonates with something I often discover when taking down the family tree. Spiders do live in them!

In our part of the country, cut Christmas trees come from the frosty Northwest. Somewhere along the way, maybe in the tree farm, our fir usually collects a small hitchhiker: a shiny, almost metallic jumping spider (Salticidae) with a taste for heights.

She or he is at the tip-top of the tree when I go to take it down after New Year’s. Why there? I don’t know. There’s no spider food nearby, unless you count stale popcorn and candy canes. But the spider is almost always there, sometimes snug inside the star itself, surveying the New Year with its sharp eyes. I set it free in our winter yard, wishing it luck, hoping it doesn’t miss its hipster Oregon friends too much.

I don’t know its species, if indeed we see the same kind every year. Salticids are the largest family of spiders, with some 5,000 named species. This particular elf could be completely new to science, who knows? Stranger things have happened at Christmas time, Ebenezer.

Who's keeping the roaches out of your stockings? Me. (Erika Smith -- Creative Commons)

Who’s keeping the roaches out of your stockings? Me. (Erika Smith — Creative Commons)

The Christmas spider legend is usually attributed to Ukraine, which has a tradition of hanging web- and spider-shaped ornaments (pavuchky, or little spiders) on the tree. Since I don’t have a Ukrainian babushka, I’d never heard the story. The tale involves an archetypal poor widow and her hungry children. A pine cone falls to the floor and grows into a fir tree, but come Christmas the family has no money for ornaments. They go to bed sorrowful, but in the night the household spiders clothe the tree in silk tinsel, the Christ child leaves swag, and the family is henceforth happy and prosperous.

The tale may have originated in Germany, where ancient tree worship sprouted into the modern Christmas tree tradition. But Ukraine has rich Yule and new year’s traditions of its own, as well as a tradition of revering spiders and depicting them in embroidery and weaving.

I learned that the Christmas tree in Ukraine accompanies an older symbol of the year’s end, the didukh, or sheaf of grain. “The spirits of the ancestors come into the home in the didukh for the holy days,” Orysia Paszczak Tracz writes in an article about Ukrainian traditions. “They had lived in the fields in the grain helping the bountiful harvest.”

That sounds just like my treetop spider. She comes indoors for a spell: a warm home, festivities, reflection, and rest. And then resumes, during serious winter, more serious pursuits.

So raise a toast to the well-intentioned, harmless house spider. She’s pals with Jesus and a dutiful housekeeper, in her own way. Look for silken strands amidst the gold.



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Posted by on December 9, 2014 in Salticidae (jumping spiders)


Spiders in the Land of Little Rain

What a long, spiderless season it’s been.

Winter was creepy-weird: 90 degrees in January, brutally dry, sun beaming down on dead annuals, leafless trees, comatose landscaping. The East and Midwest were buried in blizzard after blizzard, so we had no right to complain, but in the West each rainless day was another drip in a sort of waterless water torture.

And then spring lurched into summer with no preamble, except for the plants that (seemingly) miraculously sprang back to life to offer the mask of a normal California year. Since then it’s been months of broken rhythm and mocking sunshine.

Every living thing is still off. Plants bloomed too early or too late. The comforting reserves of water we use to beat back the desert—and it’s all desert, pretty much—no longer wait behind hose or faucet. On a recent road trip passing through the hazy-hot Salinas Valley, the hills were not golden. They were gray.

What you learn from skilled news reporters: historically, droughts in California have been known to last for long years, sometimes decades. Though not since modern recordkeeping began, which is why we’re all so gobsmacked by the seriousness of it. But in archaeological records, sure, plenty of evidence of drought wiping the shine off the Golden State. A state now so foolishly full of grass, golf courses, recreational lakes, orchards, and other thirsty things.

You also learn that ocean temperatures thousands of miles away, far off in the Pacific, are shuffling the cards you’ll be holding in fall, when the rains might or might not return. The view from my dead lawn is too small, in both time and distance, to take it in.

What it means for spiders is that I’ve seen very few. Insects, too, other than bees and mosquitoes. The county is fogging for West Nile virus vectors, which means the mosquitoes will diminish as well—something I’d normally applaud, but this year we all seem acutely aware of how missing bugs mean fewer birds, fewer green and growing things, fewer signs of life.

You get a better sense of who the survivors are. The cellar spiders, they never seem to go away; perhaps they’re generalist enough and skinny enough to survive on whatever blunders along. In our micro-ecosystem they probably benefit from the earthworm bin, which breeds tiny flies, and the mealworm boxes (kept for the geckos), where the flour moths roam. Flying fodder eventually comes their way.

And the widows: they’re stationed along the fence posts and in the downspouts just as they always have been. Maybe a tad smaller, but the summer is young and there’s still time to grow round. I go out at night and assess them by flashlight. Drought is nothing to them. Widows like it hot and dry; the females keep cool in their all-black outfits by the simple trick of being nocturnal. The small, loitering males await their moment.

Otherwise the spider places seem oddly empty. I haven’t spotted even a young orb weaver yet, much less one of the large females knitting her radial web. The wolf spiders you find by following their eye shine: where are they? Almost absent from the lush leaf litter where they usually live. Lumbering Zoropsis, the big Mediterranean hitchhiker, also has been lying low.

I met a tiny bronze jumping spider last week, let it hop around a few minutes, then freed it and wished it luck.

The_Land_of_Little_Rain_title_pageThe most notable absence in our domain is of false widows (Steatoda grossa). We’ve always had lots of them hanging around the flowerpots and crevices. This year I’m concluding they could be a sort of indicator species in our microclimate, a signal of what being less wet, less buggy, might mean. They’re pert, glossy spiders that have never caused us a bit of harm, and I would miss them. But they’re a worldwide species and could easily take a California habitat retreat in stride. More easily than we could.

We have short memories here. It’s part of our charm—that disappointment never chases you too far. There’s always going to be summer, and always going to be the rains. Or so we think. Me, I’m going to take down my old copy of a tiny book called The Land of Little Rain. Mary Austin tramped around desert California—lands people admire and fear, lands that change (if at all) only over thousands of years. She found it beautiful, and aloof, and surpassingly skillful at teaching humans their place. It might be time to build longer memories.



This Spider’s Got It Made (But There’s No Shade)

Make me one . . . with everything

The Maker Faire is coming back to the Bay Area, presumably bigger and better than ever, and stickier (from all those glue guns). I love the idea but I’ve never been. You know why? There are too many crafty people around here, and they snag all the parking and crowd the tofu-dog stands and get in the way so I can’t see the robots doing yoga! Or the self-washing dogs, or the bamboo cars. Um, I’m not exactly sure what they have on tap this year.

Spiders are makers, too, to be faire (heh). Not just takers, although they do have to take life to exist. A blog posting today from the esteemed biologist Jerry Coyne points out a spider that makes what looks like art but has some deep, and still undiscovered, purpose.

You already know about the spider that makes piñatas.

Coyne singled out a Namibian spider that lives in the ground and arranges rocks around the entrance of its burrow. It’s been noted that it usually chooses seven rocks, but as Coyne explains, that could just be due to the size of the spider and of the typical local rock. The pattern the rocks make is a purty flower (below).

Daisy, daisy, give me your answer, do. The flower bower of a Namibian spider in the family Segestriidae. (Photo by G. Costa et al., Journal of Arid Environments, 1995)

Cute, of course. But why? As usual with spiders, they’ve had 400 million years’ practice at keeping secrets. They’re masters at “no comment.”

Coyne’s possibilities include: the rocks help keep wind-blown sand out of the burrow, they disguise the spider’s hideout from predators, they somehow attract prey, or they serve as landmarks for the very nearsighted spider. No experiments have been performed to make these anything other than guesses, he notes.

The most tantalizing part of the whole setup—it’s a little eerie—is how the spider arranges its daisy. The narrow part of the rock points in, the broad part outward; that’s what makes the flower shape so lovely, so natural-looking. There has to be a well-engineered reason for that. But now we’re talking about how a mason would think. This spider, mysteriously, has enough brainpower to comprehend how the rocks fit. And they’re not even touching.

Radial symmetry is the heart of what web-spinning spiders do; we’ve all seen those marvelous mandalas in the garden. The orb weaver’s talent for engineering is well studied. But the Namibian spider is a reminder that every small animal has its bag of tricks, tools honed for its environment and often entirely unseen by us.

The yellow sac spiders that bivouac in the cracks spin a silk sleeping bag that would be the envy of any mountain climber. The black widows in the fence (yes, they came back from wherever they went during construction) maintain a tangled, most haphazard capture web, but look close and you see that it couldn’t be more perfect for catching prey, slowing down intruders, and giving the clumsy widow a fighting chance at escape.

If I can make it here, I'll make it anywhere! (Maratus volans photo by Dr. Jurgen Otto)

If I can make it here, I’ll make it anywhere! (Maratus volans photo by Dr. Jurgen Otto)

And the jumping spiders—they’re a little more obvious, I guess. Anybody could figure out the survival value of a rainbow afro or really good dance moves. Preferably combined! If the jumping spiders ever discover Namibian flower power, they’ll be unstoppable.








Movember is for Mo-rachnids

Manly men and spiders with ‘staches

In contrast to the spider-fearing citizens of Britain, spiders themselves do keep a stiff upper lip. It’s called a clypeus (CLIP-ee-us) and is defined as the area between the front edge of the carapace and the anterior eyes—a mustache zone, you might say.

On many spiders there isn’t much going on in the clypeus, but among salticids, or jumping spiders, there’s often a patch of lush facial fur. Salticids overflow with charms, even for the spider-averse, among other things because they have faces that actually look like faces, with a few extra eyes at the corners. The cowboy handlebars and day-glo beards (even Afros!) are just another endearing bonus. Seeing as how this is Movember, a month whimsically dedicated to growing a mustache to draw attention to men’s health issues, I thought of this particular bewhiskered spider. Like males of all species, he’s no stranger to challenges of the guy variety.

Let it grow! The rakishly mustachioed Lapsias lorax, collected by Wayne Maddison and crew in Ecuador in 2000. (Photo © Univ. of British Columbia)

Let it grow! The rakishly mustachioed Lapsias lorax, collected by Wayne Maddison and crew in Ecuador in 2000. (Photo © Univ. of British Columbia)

Lapsias lorax won its name in a contest hosted two years ago by the Beaty Biodiversity Museum in Vancouver, B.C. The Beatty is just jumping with spiders, and is the home base of an arachnological legend, Wayne Maddison. If you’ve spent any time at all on the Internet, and everybody knows you have, you’ve seen Maddison’s videos of jumping spider courtship dances. The vids that all you wacky kids overlay with music soundtracks—everything from disco to house to smoove tunes. A veritable “Stayin’ Alive” with the dance floor measured in millimeters. Top that, digital kittens.

The way those determined little dudes shimmy and wave and waggle! It’s hilarious and touching and gives the average male human some food for thought about the many ways he may have appeared, and perhaps daily appears, a fool for love. Boz Scaggs may, or may not, have dedicated his album Silk Degrees to these silk-spinning horndogs.

Maddison oversaw the contest to name this new species of jumping spider, which he and his colleagues had discovered in Ecuador. Maddison picks up new species the way most of us pick up the mail, because he makes a habit of traveling to places where the wild things are. According to the Beaty site, he received 810 entries. No, I didn’t win.

The winning idea came from a Canadian who thought the golden band below the mystery spider’s face—more of a slinky, pencil-thin mustache than the usual salticid bottlebrush, also more properly on his jaws than his clypeus—resembled that of the Lorax, Dr. Seuss’s treehugging hero in the book of the same name. (Sharp observation, Tristan Long! Next time I shall defeat you.) It also pleased the spider judges that the spider’s name evokes a desire to protect threatened environments, many of them the wild places Maddison likes to explore.

Dr. Seuss's Lorax. The spider's better groomed, in my opinion.

Dr. Seuss’s Lorax. The spider’s better groomed, in my opinion.

So there you have it—one of the many mustachioed spiders to strike a hairy note for Movember. Incidentally, the mustache doesn’t make the man, not among spiders. The real way to tell this spider is male is the shape of his pedipalps, those extremities below his face. The palps are built like a smaller set of legs, with one fewer segment. Among mature males the tips look like boxing gloves, dramatically different from the trim, sleek palps females have.

They’re shaped that way for mating. They are the key that fits the lock. A receptacle at the end holds sperm that the spider has previously placed on a special web and then taken up as if by syringe. Then he goes looking for the right female (that’s what that dancing is really for! not fame and glory and a trophy, but to signal in song and dance, “Love me! Don’t eat me!”). What happens next is kind of like a handshake, at least on his end, and kind of not. And it’s not on the courtship videos. Leave some room for romance, bro.


Guest Post: Check out the Peacock Spider!

Rainbow afro circus time! Maratus volans photo by Dr. Jurgen Otto

Rainbow afro circus time! Maratus volans photo by Dr. Jurgen Otto


Today, Tru wants to chat about a recent spider discovery:


Note: Information from Wikipedia article, Maratus volans.


If you see spiders which just aren’t that attractive or you’re just bored of, well this spider is NOT for you. This spider is called the Peacock (or gliding spider) or in Latin, Maratus volans. It is a species of jumping spider.

It is confined in Australia. Octavius Pickard-Cambridge (I think the discoverer) noted in his original description, “It is difficult to describe adequately the great beauty coloring of this spider” because it has a unusual trait of having flap-like extensions on its abdomen which rise upward to get ahold of the attention of the girl peacock. While approaching, the male vibrates and begins its groovy dance. If the female doesn’t like the male, she’ll eat him. They reach to about 5 mm in the length of the body. Maratus volans means “flying” in latin. There’s an urban myth that they can fly, but it’s not true.

Thanks for reading Spiderhugger™

Article by: Truman Lindsey


(P.S.: Here’s the link to the amazing, unbelievable, indeed groovy dance of the peacock spider, as narrated by Dr. Jurgen Otto)


Ground control to Major Charlotte . . .

One giant leap for spiderkind – a lot of leaps, actually

The universe’s most well-traveled spider, a Phidippus johnsoni with the grand name of Nefertiti, died recently in what was supposed to be her quiet retirement home. Reporters made much of how this chunky, red-and-black jumper not only thrived in her 100 days aboard the International Space Station but withstood the rigors of launch, re-entry, and being shuttled about the country with apparent good grace. Nefertiti seems to have reached the end of her brief natural lifespan in the warm confines of an exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.

Spiders have the right stuff, forgive me trotting out that phrase. They’re focused, efficient, and as taciturn as any Neil Armstrong. This particular arachnaut, a regular Sally Ride, had a simple mission that she performed with grace and energy: catching flies. And the wondrous thing: she did it in zero gravity, an environment no earthly spider could be expected to grasp. Think of those millions of years of earthbound instincts, honed to an unimagineable degree … and yet this jumping spider was all feh, I can do this—I’ll just adjust the trajectory here and the thrust there, disregard millennia of sensory input, and boom: bug soup.

What next! Spiders from Mars? Oh. Carry on then, Ziggy.

I don’t think any old spider could have done it. Jumping spiders are the brains of the outfit. Equipped with sophisticated, unblinking, networked cameras around their little heads, they see and hunt famously well. They’ve been observed sneaking up on prey that they can’t even see, calculating how to creep up under cover and burst out at just the right instant. It would be like you stalking a pizza delivery guy walking along on the other side of a tall fence, figuring out when he’s going to stop and tie his shoe or check his text messages, pursuing him around the corner, and then out you pop through a loose board and snatch his pie. Yep, it takes thought.

Nefertiti got her ticket to ride thanks to an 18-year-old Egyptian named Amr Mohamed, who won the YouTube Spacelab contest with his idea for a jumping-spider experiment. (There was a second arachnaut, a zebra-striped Salticus scenicus named Cleopatra, but alas, she died in orbit.) Once aloft, astronaut Suni Williams took the spiders under her wing and blogged about them. She remarked about Nefertiti: “She is sort of scary. I am so glad I am not a fruit fly. I opened up the habitat and actually saw her running around at full speed looking for something to eat. It was difficult to even get a steady picture.”

What, no Tang? Nefertiti is hungry, and she’s looking at you.

Watch her do it. It’s funny how earthlike it looks. She does that classic Salticid prowl, but I think she’s hanging on to the surface a bit more consciously, as astronauts do. Can’t see it, but surely she’s letting out a silk dragline before the leap to reel herself back in if she misses. But jumping spiders always do that on earth, too.

Nefertiti was not the first spider in space. Experiments involving zero-G web building by spiders also took place aboard Skylab (that’s old-school space program, kiddies), on the space station twice before, and on the shuttle Columbia. Australian high-school students designed Columbia’s science module to see whether eight garden-variety orb spiders could do their weaving and hunting jobs in space. Those spiders perished when Columbia was destroyed during re-entry in 2003.

Until recently, a brave little website by the Glen Waverley Secondary College devoted to that aborted spider experiment was still archived on the web, drifting forlornly through cyberspace. The tab labeled “Results” was blank.

But there’s more to that story, and not really about spiders but about science and humans. Most of the spider data was lost along with the shuttle and its crew, but spacecraft did fly again. The teenagers who planned that experiment with such care resolved to let their work stand as homage to the people who venture into space. There will be other experiments, schoolchildren will dream them up, and other lives long and short will be entwined into the struggle to find Big Picture answers in the warm earth and the cold silence of space.

In 2011 two golden orb-weaving spiders preceded Nefertiti on the International Space Station, delivered via shuttle Endeavour in its last flight, and put in more than two months in another web-building experiment. Only one survived the return trip, and it obliquely offered aspiring scientists and teachers a lesson in humility.

Details matter in science and spaceflight, often to a poignant degree. The students, amid their extremely detailed preparations, had named this arachnaut Gladys. Back on earth, she was determined to be a he.

Henceforth the returned traveler was called Gladstone.



I’m being stalked by a jumping spider

Man in black

Three times in a year this audacious spider—hey, that’s its actual common name, the audacious jumping spider—has leaped into my life. Not the same actual spider, but different individuals of the species Phidippus audax in different places.

“Every breath you take … every move you make …” Sting, you say? No, but I can bite.

One even posed for some surprisingly good (if fuzzy) close-ups in which it appeared to have been preening its handsome, hairy self in the reflection of my iPhone.

I don’t remember ever seeing this species until a year ago, despite a lifetime spent in its range. Then, last summer, my daughter was planting trees and texted me a blurry snap of a spider her fellow planters thought was worrisome. It was loitering on a tree trunk with a grasshopper it had caught. A quick check with Professor Internet suggested Phidippus audax, and I told her there was nothing to be concerned about, unless you were a grasshopper. That’s me, spider tech support.

Just trying to blend in with the toddler outfits. What? It’s SoCal. We shop.

And then there was the children’s section of this precious twee earthy gift shop we were visiting in Costa Mesa a few weeks ago. The specimen you see in my photos was hanging out amid some pastel-colored little frocks, as I recall. Bold, indeed! Borderline pervy. Resisting my efforts to catch it on an envelope, it sidled into a box holding a hot-chocolate mug. Thankfully, no haters were about, nor fierce warrior moms. When I tipped the spider out of the box, it hung on with a dragline, giving me time to walk it to the door and let it land in the bushes. The clerks said they appreciated my green gesture, though they kept their distance and emitted faint screams.

A mere day later, my daughter and I were touring the restored wetlands at Bolsa Chica Beach, feeling fine to see how nice were the marshes and chaparral at what my family used to call Tin Can Beach. At the visitor center, housed in a biggish trailer, we saw the usual pickled and stuffed marine specimens and blowsy dioramas you’d expect at a site where the budget all goes to land acquisition, not fancy displays. But lo: in the corner of a plastic terrarium, a huddled black blob that looked strangely familiar. The young docents didn’t know what it was.

My cue! Out came the phone, I called up these photos, and asked, “Does it look like … THIS?” And how much better does it get than having a big, clear picture of the very jumping spider in question, right there at the ready? It doesn’t. It was like that scene in “Annie Hall” where Woody Allen drags Marshall McLuhan out from behind a potted plant to explain a Marshall McLuhan concept. Now the audacity was all mine.

Lots of spiders are soft of hue and hard to tell apart. Not this guy. Jet black with white highlights, built like a car, and often displaying shimmering green jaws. Not huge, but it has a presence: it might be the size of a quarter, legs included. I don’t know if it’s “audacious” because of its bold outfit or its bold habits. Either works. It prowls instead of lurking, so you’re apt to see it walking around in its stop-start manner wherever there might be prey. Two big, soulful, catlike main eyes, like all jumping spiders. At mating time, the males drum and dance and carry on. Don’t we all.

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Posted by on June 14, 2012 in Salticidae (jumping spiders)


A spider insider

Wayne Maddison is the jumping-spider man of the Internet. His courtship videos of Salticids are amazing and touching and hilarious just by themselves (what rollicking little Travoltas these jumping spiders be) but people in Netland have been setting them to music for ages, too. Salsa, disco, anything with a beat that seems suitable for flashy duds and the tricky wooing-slash-groveling that the male jumper indulges in. I’ve always wanted to meet Wayne Maddison. But not today, not just because he works in British Columbia but because according to his blog he’s off in Borneo, literally beating the bushes for undiscovered species and probably having a high old time. Here’s something he recently sent back. It’s a Salticid that looks as if it were made out of lemon hard candy. The thing to notice: you can see right through it, watching as those big telescope-like anterior median eyes sweep across their environment. This one is from Ecuador.