August 14 Program Review

An Evening at SWNP – Looking for Arachnids, by Michael Smith

The evening of August 14th was focused on discovering and understanding spiders and their kin, under the guidance of Meghan Cassidy. She is a naturalist, photographer, and a strong advocate of everything in the class Arachnida. Those animals, the arachnids, include spiders, harvestmen, scorpions, ticks, and a few others, many of whom are misunderstood and sometimes feared. There is much to love about arachnids, though, and the walk on the 14th showed it.

Meghan brought a few examples to get us started, including a wolf spider, yellow garden spider, and a solifuge. During the discussion of those critters, a family discovered our little group and joined for a while. Their pre-adolescent boy promptly found a striped bark scorpion and brought it to us. It had just molted and was bright, soft and vulnerable. An interesting discovery was that, while scorpions show up as fluorescent yellow-green under a black light, this one did not. Perhaps there is some change in the chitin after it hardens that is necessary in order to fluoresce under black light.

About a dozen participants came together before we started the walk. Many of them were easily pulled into a genuine fascination with the little things of this world. For them, spiders are no less worthy of study – and of admiration and respect – than any other wildlife.

I tentatively place myself in that group, despite my continuing tactile defensiveness of webs or what feels like clutching, unpredictable contact of spider-on-skin. I can admire the symmetry and patterns of webs and be fascinated with the sparkling way that sunlight can reflect off the silken strands. I am captivated by the pretty patterns of yellow garden spiders or green lynxes, and wonder at the strange, crab-like, thorny forms of spiny-backed orb-weavers. It’s the grasping, tactile contact with a bigger spider that I struggle with. 

The admiration and wonder are stronger than the crawling residue of fear. I joined the ranks of the other naturalists, searching the vegetation alongside the trail, capturing a small species of lynx spider to ask Meghan to identify, and listening to the give-and-take of discussion as she shared her extensive knowledge of these arachnids and their natural history. We found leaves folded around silken “sleeping sacs” that some spiders use for a daytime refuge, and some of them contained shed skins of growing spiders.

It was such a positive experience, being a part of a group whose delight was in discovering and sharing things about the natural world. Somebody would find something on the sidewalk and everyone would immediately crouch down to see it up close, photograph it, and find out what Meghan would have to say about it.

“It’s a dotted wolf spider.” Meghan explained, pointing out the pattern on its abdomen and how it lacked the chevrons that defined the rabid wolf spider (which is not really “rabid” or aggressive, just fast).

After sunset, Meghan showed us how to shine flashlights into the leaf litter and look for the greenish reflected light from the eyes of wolf spiders. At the ponds, we were able to see many long-jawed orb-weavers (the name emphasizes their jaws but once again they are not aggressive or dangerous), spinning webs over the water. In the trees, other orb-weavers were constructing their target-shaped webs. The tinier spiders wove orbs so fine that they looked like small circles of woven mist clinging to a flower stem. At the north pond, participants with black lights discovered two tiny scorpions. Despite being babies, they fluoresced green in the black lights; otherwise we never would have found them.

As the evening was wrapping up around 10:00pm, I walked ahead a little and watched the approaching group, now visible as a half-dozen flashlight beams shooting out of the tree canopy at shifting angles like some luminous beast of the woods. These were my kind of folks, people who would stay past the designated time and never give it a moment’s thought, lost in discovery and wonder.

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