One surprising find was seeing our old friend, the golden orb weaver. We even saw one outside the Cueva Ventana that had succumb to a fungal infection of some sort:
Dead Golden orb-weaver. Check out the fungus growing out of the leg joints.
I showed this image to a mycologist friend and they thought the fungus may be from the genus Beauveria. In all of my years living in orb-weaver infested Gainesville FL, I have never seen a dead banana spider! Had to share!
But New England, with its “seasons,” is a different story*. So, imagine my surprise and delight when Begum and I were hiking around Farm River State Park and saw this little fella scurry across the path:
At Farm River State Park, CT. Picture taken with Galaxy s7.
After some quick searches, I outsourced my initial guess to the amazing sciencesphere of twitter:
I have a confession. When I was young I wasn’t very kind to spiders. My behavior can likely be attributed to fear; growing up we are surrounded by imagery of spiders being dangerous and alien. We fear what we don’t understand. The internet says Marie Curie once said “Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.” And it’s true, the more I learned about spiders the less I squashed them. Now that I’m older, and a biologist, and living in Florida (read: constantly surrounded by giant spiders), I see spiders as fascinating, useful, and largely innocuous. And I’m on a mission to spread this view in order to gain back all the biology-karma I lost squashing spiders in my childhood. So, here are some neat facts I just learned after to a recent encounter.
Storytime. The other night I was outside enjoying the (relatively) cooler Floridian night and getting some work done. Suddenly I glimpsed a familiar shape darting towards the leg of my chair. A few inches long, but too meaty and agile to be an orbweaver or banana spider, I knew it had to be a wolf spider. So, I jumped up and reached for my phone and rushed to snap a picture before she retreated. When the flash went off I was greeted with a surprise…
Proud Wolf Spider Momma
Reflections. Reflections from eyes. But wait, why are there reflections coming from the spider’s abdomen?
Want to see it for yourself? Go outside at night and shine a bright light into the grass. Those hundreds of reflective dots shining back? Wolf spiders looking at you. But fear not, for now you understand more. Just wear shoes.
Alright, so my wife and I both think dragonflies are really cool. We never really thought about exactly why we think this, it’s just this inherent neatness about them. Maybe it’s how they hover like brightly colored silent helicopters and then quickly dart about like… I don’t know, some sort of alien spacecraft. And, unlike some of our other backyard insect friends (I’m talking about mosquitoes and red imported fire ants, both of which seem to have an affinity for my skin in particular), dragonflies don’t bother us.
This last weekend I was fortunate enough to have a dragonfly interaction that got me falling down the wikipedia rabbit hole learning about our flying friends, so I figured I’d share some of what I found here. First, for the fateful interaction:
I was grilling up a batch of beer in preparation for the summer…
You read that right. Cannataro’s Brewery Summer Saison will go on tap June 2015.
He hung out for a while, flew to different perches, and even let me get a few close-ups.
Smiling for the camera. Which, by the way, was just my cell phone (galaxy s4).
Eventually my wort was ready to start cooling and he was done patrolling the garden so we exchanged our goodbyes and went our separate ways. Little did I know the carnage that was awaiting me the next morning. Warning, dear reader, the next image is graphic.
My dragonfly friend had been decapitated! By one of his own! Well, kind of. That new, green, living dragonfly is (I believe) a female eastern pondhawk. After I took that picture she flew off, taking the body with her, leaving just his head as evidence. Woah. Talk about cool backyard biology! Down the wikipedia rabbit hole I went. Time for some rapid fire fun dragonfly facts.
Dragonflies have been on Earth in pretty much their present form for over 300 million years. In fact, the largest insect to ever exist was an ancient dragonfly (with an estimated wingspan of 28 inches!). They can spend years in their underwater nymph form, which has extending and retractile lower jaws (remind you of any alien characters?) and can feed on vertebrates (small fish, tadpoles) and mosquito larvae (thank you).
The adults enjoy mosquitoes as well (told you they were awesome).
The nymph crawls out of the water and transforms directly into the adult in a process called ecdysis. They have a unique mating system where the male grabs the female behind her head with the claspers at the end of his abdomen and they form a heart-shaped mating pair. Their wings are self-cleaning and water repellant due to the lotus effect. I can go on and on, but if you want to learn more you should check out this video:
So next time you look at a dragonfly think about how you’re looking at the 300 million year old body plan of a ruthless killing machine with a 95% hunting success rate. Dragonflies are awesome!
I’ve encountered two different species of giant (subjective classification based on my previous New-York-State-only spider exposure) orb weaver spiders while living in Gainesville (and one non-orb weaver!). Both of which have been referred to as a ‘banana spider’. So, who are these spiders anyway, and which one is really the true banana spider?
Staying in the lab is tough when you live in the sunshine state. I mean, at SUNY Geneseo it was easier- the lab served as a warm refuge against those Western NY winds and clouds. So every once and again I’ll find a break in the Floridian sunshowers and bring my work outside. However, as any biologist can tell you, work is impossible outside because you always get distracted by some cool critter crawling by your laptop. Case in point: last time I tried this I noticed a little pile of moss moving across the table…
… so of course I flipped it over…
…and found legs! (Woah, I need to find out what this is.) Further investigation revealed impressive mandibles and a set of sticky spines:
It looked very similar to an antlion, which is the larval form of a certain family of lacewing. Antlions are awesome in their own right, they form little trenches in the sand and eat ants that fall into their trap. I teach an intro bio lab on the spatial distribution of organisms, and I always take the students outside to hunt for antlions (they are typically (spoiler) clumped together in sandy spots under the eaves of buildings). And I always show this video:
Anyway, it turns out that critter I found was also a larval lacewing! Certain species have sticky spines on their back that trap debris and help the larva blend in with their environment. This isn’t a new tactic- scientists have found a 110 million year old larval lacewing trapped in amber that has fern trichomes stuck on its back. How cool is that?! (Another spoiler: very)
And such is the curse of the biologist- go outside to write and in minutes you are a few Wikipedia pages deep classifying insects.
I was studying outside and got distracted by a few visitors today. First up is Leucuage venusta: the Orchard Orbweaver.
I took this picture of a different orchard orbweaver earlier in the year:
Wikipedia seems to be a bit confused about how many species belong to the Araneidaeorbweaver family (but what’s in a species, anyway?). Regardless of who belongs to the family, these spiders get their namesake from producing large spiraling webs to entrap their prey. Unlike my next visiter, Anasaitis canosa: the twin-flagged jumping spider.
Jumping spiders, members of the family Salticidae, don’t sit and wait for their prey but actively hunt. They use their silk as a tether before pouncing on their meal- allowing them to return to the previous position if they miss.
I met this fellow in O’leno State Park (along with a bunch of awesome Orb-weavers that I’ll probably post at some point). It’s a Saddleback Caterpillar (Acharia stimulea.) You can barely notice the ‘saddle’ on its back here, but I’m sure you have no problem noticing the venomous spines (known as Urticating hair) and mock-face (a startle display) on its backside. This larvae will eventually metamorphose into a limacodid moth:
Like many of the caterpillar –> butterfly/moth transformations, the adult bears little resemblance to the larvae in both body and behavior. It’s difficult to believe that the two life stages even belong to the same organism. In fact, what does the adult share with the larvae? Once in the cocoon does the body completely melt down and reform, leading to a rebirth and a fresh life? Or, does the adult have some memory of its youth?
Well, research suggests that the adults do share memories with their earlier selves. The scientists trained caterpillars to associate a specific odor with an electrical shock and found that, after metamorphosis, the adult moth avoided the odor that was associated with the shock earlier in life.
This shocking finding (sorry, I had to) may help scientists understand how Lepidoptera select habitat and, who knows, may have implications with human memory retention as well.