Friday, December 19, 2014

Winter House Guests


The pile of sweaty skiing and outdoor clothes in my closet had begun to smell a little rank, as polypro is inclined to do. So I hoisted the laundry basket and schlepped it down two flights of stairs. In the corner of the last step, something small and dark, about the size of a nickel, caught my eye. “Thunk” went the laundry as I crouched down to get a better look. Sure enough, a brown spider crouched among the dust bunnies and dog hairs.

Now, I know that this type of discovery elicits a wide variety of responses in people, and the majority probably lean toward some combo of screaming and smashing. But I’m at the other end of the spectrum. It’s been hard to “see” nature lately, since I spend most daylight hours in the office. As a result, I’ve been feeling a little deprived of my usual encounters with wildlife, so I felt honored to have some nature living in my stairwell. I ran up the steps, grabbed my camera, and did a little wildlife photography there on the basement steps.

Long, hairy, rusty brown legs were banded with darker stripes. Her oval-shaped abdomen was tan, with a squiggly black chevron pattern and more hair. Long, slender pedipalps (also hairy), stood ready on either side of her mouth to taste, smell, and or help crush her food. Indeed, it was the delicacy of the pedipalps that identified her as a female – a male would have big club-like pedipalps to aid in reproduction.

A quick search through Larry Weber’s Spiders of the Northwoods just got me more confused on the identity of the little critter. Show me some tree buds and I’ll point out minute differences that indicate this twig is (obviously) from a beaked hazel and the other one is from an American hazel. Show me a spider, and I say, well, it has long legs and dark stripes. That describes at least a third of the spiders in my guide.

For help, I went straight to the source and emailed the photo to Larry. With enthusiasm, he identified is as “a type of Funnel-web Spider (Funnel-weaver); family Agelenidae. She appears to be the genus Tegenaria.” Then—as with any new roommate—I Googled her to find out more.

According to Wikipedia (a good place to start, but not the final word), “house spiders of the genus Tegenaria are fast-running brownish funnel-web weavers that occupy much of the Northern Hemisphere except for Japan and Indonesia.” In northwestern Europe, where giant house spiders (Tegenaria duellica) are native, the British affectionately call them “dust bunny spiders,” due to their propensity to set up a territory under furniture.

Long ago, these spiders might also have chosen to set up territories on the ships carrying the first European settlers in the 1600s, and/or in shipments of British lumber during the Napoleonic Wars (early 1800s), thus spreading from Europe to America. Their close association with humans may have earned them passage elsewhere, too, and they are now suspected to live in almost every country on Earth.

You have to be fast to colonize the world, and giant house spiders held the held the Guinness Book of World Records for top spider speed (1.18 mph) until 1987. The “spiders” that beat their record are not even true spiders! Hmph!

Happily, most of these house spiders would rather try to escape than try to bite you or your pet, so they pose little danger as roommates. David Sedaris, bestselling humorist and author, once befriended a number of Tegenaria spiders and noted that they are “as quiet and unobtrusive as Amish farmers.” One thing I did worry about was where this spider was living. Oh, I don’t care if it sets up shop in the basement stairwell—that wasn’t the problem. But everything I read suggested that these Funnel-web spiders should be living on a flat, sheet-like web with a tubular retreat at one corner. Nowhere at the bottom of the stairs could I find such a web. So I ventured into the basement itself to see if I could find the spider’s true home.

I found the nooks and crannies surprisingly clear of webs, until I reached the farthest back corner. There, above the phone and internet boxes, hung a beautiful gossamer sheet web. Tentative jiggling it, I was surprised by a tiny black spider that suddenly bungee—jumped into the abyss and then lowered himself (male spiders are smaller) smoothly on a line of silk. A second black spider still clung to the web. As I looked even closer, I noticed several pale, leggy cellar spiders clinging upside down to messy, irregular webs like something out of Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas.

The crumpled bodies of dead insects littered the floor under this spider colony. I took this as evidence that these spiders were contributing members of the household, not just some lazy freeloaders. Through all this adventure, my dirty clothes sat abandoned on the floor. If only spiders could add “doing laundry” to their list of helpful talents!   

For over 45 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! The current exhibit, “Nature’s Superheroes—Adventures with Adaptations,” opens in May 2014 and will remain open until March 2015.


Find us on the web at www.cablemuseum.org to learn more about our exhibits and programs. Discover us on Facebook, or at our blogspot, http://cablemuseumnaturalconnections.blogspot.com.

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