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Nature

Good Natured in St. Charles: Along came a largely unexpected spider

The furrow spider is one of only a few local spider species that overwinter as adults. Its size makes it well-suited to eating larger insects or serving as a substantial meal for birds and mammals.
The furrow spider is one of only a few local spider species that overwinter as adults. Its size makes it well-suited to eating larger insects or serving as a substantial meal for birds and mammals.

I don’t think Mother Goose will mind if I paraphrase her work a bit:

“Along came a spider / So I sat down beside her / And frightened Miss Spider away!”

Typically, when one encounters a spider outside in springtime, the creature is teensy. Or, to use the technical term, itsy bitsy. Small spiders weaving small webs and catching small insects – it’s one of the many hallmarks of spring in northern Illinois.

So imagine my surprise when I encountered a spider, outdoors, that was every bit as big as the spiders we normally don’t see around here until late summer or early fall. There she was, with her half-inch body and half-inch legs – a whole inch of spider – smack-dab in the center of her large orb web, placidly slurping the life juices from a boxelder bug.

So struck was I by her great size and delicate beauty that I had no choice but to sit down beside her. And while I did frighten her away, it was only for a minute. She scurried up one of the supporting rays of her web and tucked herself out of sight behind a dried plant stem. Then, apparently deciding that I was big and noisy but otherwise not a threat, she returned to her boxelder breakfast.

As she worked the carcass with her pedipalps, making sure to extract every last nutritious drop, my mind starting flipping through its Rolodex of possible identities for this wondrous creature. It was an orb-weaver, for sure, which ruled out a good chunk of species, but also left plenty for consideration. Except for one thing …

Every individual that came to mind was a summer species. Araneus diadematus, the cross orb-weaver, is extremely common here. But at this time of year, its young are just beginning to emerge from the egg sac in which they overwintered. Plus, this new girl lacked its prominent white cross marking.

Argiope, the black-and-yellow garden spiders? Or Micrathena, a genus noted for their spiny abdomens? Nope.

It wasn’t long before I realized that I was going to need some help from BugGuide.net and my friend Google to get this mystery solved.

I stayed beside Miss Spider long enough to watch her attempt, and fail, to snare a bee that bounced in and out of her web, then I stood up, snapped a few quick photos, and headed on my whey. [I mean way.]

Later that night, at home, I poured myself a tasty beverage, fired up the laptop, and began the spider research in earnest. On the BugGuide home page, I typed the words “orb weaver” into the search box, then used the website’s handy browse feature to click through possible options.

I soon found a few likely suspects – one in particular – the furrow spiders, genus Larinioides. I plugged that name into Google and after a few more clicks found myself on another favorite “web” (nyuk, nyuk) site, Spiderz Rule. The text read in part:

“Furrow spiders are common orb-weaver spiders often found around homes and other urban areas. Some furrow spiders are known to overwinter as adults: this is noteworthy because typical orb-weaver species live for only one year, dying before winter. These species grow to about 1/2-inch long.” Sounds like a match!

Now, there’s always a chance this identification is way off base. Right at the start, BugGuide helpfully informed me that: “There are approximately 3,500 orb-weaver species worldwide, with 180 occurring north of Mexico.” That detail, combined with my somewhat limited knowledge of spider anatomy, and the fact that accurate identification often requires a look at spider body parts that are nearly inaccessible, causes me some concern.

But I’d say, with about an 85% level of confidence, it’s a furrow spider. If I had to pick a species, I’d go with L. cornutus because BugGuide says it’s more common in the eastern U.S.

So why does any of this matter? Spiders, regardless of species, are important members of food webs. As predators, they consume all manner of creepy crawlies – insects and other arthropods of which we might otherwise have too many. As prey, they help sustain many of our favorite vertebrate species. Birds such as wrens and chickadees regularly feed on spiders, and many other species use them to nourish their young. (Fun fact: Spiders are rich in taurine, an amino acid that plays an important role in many essential bodily functions.)

Furrow spiders, big as they are, can catch much larger prey than the itsy, bitsy spiders that otherwise predominate now. Likewise, furrow spiders’ substantial bodies can provide a hefty portion of much-needed protein for hungry birds and mammals, and maybe even an amphibian or two.

From now to fall, the number of spiders to sit down beside will increase exponentially. I’m not sure how Mother Goose would feel about such a prospect, but I know another mother – Mother Nature – won’t mind at all.

Pam Otto is the manager of nature programs and interpretive services at the Hickory Knolls Discovery Center, a facility of the St. Charles Park District. She can be reached at 630-513-4346 or potto@stcparks.org. Feedback on this column can be sent to editorial@kcchronicle.com.

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