What The Spiders Taught Me

On the 13th of January, 2011, a friend I’d made over Facebook sent me a rather lengthy private message.

 It was no ordinary message, but neither was the man who’d sent it.
At this point, I had yet to meet this man in person and we’d only really gotten to know one another through the postings of daily life via the social networking site. How we arrived at such an acquaintance is an interesting thing in itself! I’ll have to tell you a bit about my past for you to really appreciate the craziness of it all.
Only a few years had passed since I’d learned to love a creature that a rather few people admire: Spiders.
Going back to 2009…
I was living in New Jersey, changing my clothes, actually, when a male jumping spider of the genus Phidippus (He turned out to be Phidippus audax, the most common and widely distributed species.) caught my eye. I didn’t know what it was at the moment, it was merely a motion that I noticed in the corner of my eye…but there he was, crawling on one of my pet gerbils wire topped cages, just a black blob on white lines. This meeting initiated an epic journey of discovery and learning on my part, through which I was forever changed as a person!
I’d grown up curious, but fearful of these freakish eight-legged creatures that scurried frantically across the floor, walls and ceiling of our home when least expected. For years, I believed I was cursed with what seemed a magnetic ability to attract large arachnids. I’d watch TV while sitting on the carpeted floor and eventually feel a light tickle on my bare feet. Thinking little of it, I’d casually look down, only to see a tremendous Tegenaria gigantea sprawled about my toes like he owned them! It was always unsettling – I’d spring to my feet and summon up the courage to either capture the spider in a cup or take the cowards way out, inviting our pet cat to have a go at disabling the beast before removing it’s body and tossing it outside.
I’m not proud of my past history with arachnids (I recall the previous events with horror and shame.) but I am thankful to have seen the light. My little Phidippus audax, the unwilling prisoner and subject of my insatiable need to know more – more about something that was so completely misunderstood. He was the beacon, the bright sun revealing the shadowy, unknown places where inexplicably exciting truth lay waiting.
I’d captured my Phidippus audax in something like a cautious panic. I remember feeling incredibly tense while I tried wrangling the predominantly black creature into a clear plastic cup. Once I’d finally captured the little beast, I sat and stared at it in reverent awe mingled with primal terror.
I knew it was a salticid, a type of spider known for it’s jumping abilities and exceptional vision. I’d at the very least encountered one other male spider of this species the year before and remembered the fantastic metallic blue and green structures beneath it’s prominent, binocular-like eyes. (Those metallic structures hold it’s fangs and are called chelicerae.) I also remembered staring down this first male with a window separating us, me being indoors and him clinging to the wood panels on the exterior side of the house. Despite the glass barrier, I was unnerved by the proximity! In all, we gazed at one another at a distance of about a foot. I knew it was silly to be afraid of him and I wondered about it at the time…
Why am I scared? Clearly, the spider captivated me, but it was captivating in a robotic sort of way. The experience was eerie.
Anyways, this spider very definitely knew I was looking at him (I had yet to discover the amazing intelligence of Salticidae.) could see my looming mass on the other side of the pane and would peek at me from the edge of the bottom of the window, huddled defensively within himself. I could only see his eyes and the top of his head. I couldn’t recall having seen a spider like this before but I wasn’t terrifically invested in analyzing him at that time, so I moved on to some other activity.
Later in the day, I went back to see if he was still there but it was clear that he’d also moved on to do what salticids must enjoy doing.
But back to the second encounter!
My boyfriend at the time was also a lover of animals, but when I asked him what I should do with the spider, he suggested I let it go free. It wasn’t a bad idea, honestly and I’m sure the spider would have preferred the freedom, but I was determined to lose my fear of spiders through keeping him. I figured I’d compensate the spider by providing him with all the things he required, so captive he remained.
With my captive specimen contained and decidedly in my care as a pet, I had plenty of time for research. Growing up on Discovery Channel wildlife documentaries and reading National Geographic magazine when it was available, I had already established a love for animals, nature, science and technology. All of these subjects seemed to collide together in my research and it was necessary to dive into websites, books and do many observations to deepen my understanding of this incredible little life form.
When I realized how very active he was, I purchased one of those gallon sized ‘critter-keepers’ with the folding lids and put some more natural seeming objects inside for him to crawl on. I remember putting a tiny cactus inside (more for my amusement, I think.) and it was fascinating to see him explore! The spider moved in the most deliberate, cat-like manner…it was truly hypnotizing to watch. He liked sitting on the top of the cactus, but he had fake ivy plants to crawl on too. Later down the line I housed him in a terrarium with a live plant.
Now, there were some obvious things that I needed to know very quickly, relatively simple things if he was going to be a pet!
First of all, I had to know what it ate. This was relatively straight forward and the expected prey were added to my list of must-haves: Flies, crickets, other spiders, etc. What I hadn’t really thought of, or just hadn’t realized was that I had no idea just how spiders actually ate. And then there was the question of how spiders drank. I’d never seen a spider drink water…or poop for that matter! What did spider poop look like?!
…and so it went, every question leading to another question until I was hours deep into research and experimenting with prey and getting a sense of what he seemed to enjoy eating most. I learned a lot about what makes a healthy arachnid diet, watched a spider drink for the first time (it’s bizarrely fascinating!) and soon branched off into the more mysterious parts of the spider behavior and habits world. Oh, and I also found out what spider poop is like – that came with the first few times I handled the spider! To answer curious minds, it looks like a diminutive bird crap – white with blackish flecks!
The fact that all spiders were strictly carnivorous was soon proven to be untrue. I witnessed my captive jumping spider opportunistically sucking on a piece of health cereal that I’d provided for a field cricket that was kept in the same enclosure. Later, I discovered articles about a vegetarian species of jumping spider by the scientific name of Bagheera kiplingi, that feeds primarily on the buds of Acacia plants.
Live prey wasn’t always necessary, either. Some time later, I experimented with feeding salticids and other types of spiders fish-food, which was usually well received (with particlar rapture by Dolomedes okefinokensis, a large type of fishing spider.) The experiments with their diet taught me a lot about how spiders detect nutritional content in substances and opened another window to the range of arachnid behaviors. Their world is so much bigger than the common person is ever going to know! This opened my mind to other aspects of life that we take for granted as representing the ‘truth’.
I could (and will, later!) elaborate almost endlessly on the discoveries I made from keeping that jumping spider, but I’m going to jump back into more recent history – a history that could not have come to fruition without that singular experience.
I’d moved back home to Washington State to help my mom take care of my littlest sister now that my other siblings had moved out of the house. I wasn’t up to a tremendous amount in New Jersey and I imagined I’d only be in WA for a few months, or something to that effect. I was excited to reacquaint myself with local spider species, as well as life in general away from New Jersey. It was surprisingly hard, at first…I’d been living in New Jersey for three years at that point with my then boyfriend and his family and things had been going well for me. (Not spectacularly, but hey, I was employed!)
Anyhow, this love for local spiders led me to Arachnologist Rod Crawford, of the Burke Museum in Seattle.
With so many questions and so many varied answers on the internet, I wanted to get the opinion of an expert. At this time, I was still pretty naive about all that this realm entailed, but Mr. Crawford proved and has proven to be an astonishing source of information. I’d e-mail him with queries on the ID’s for spiders I’d find in my yard and beyond and he’d do his best to give me general or specific ID’s for the specimens. Later on, we met in person so that he could analyze spiders under the microscope. That was a scientifically stimulating moment!! The room where he conducts his research is full of books and varied scientific instruments, little glass vials and big bulky metal cabinets housing a presumptively countless number of preserved and cataloged arachnids, all floating in alcohol.
I went on a spider collecting trip with him and a friend of his not too long after that, 20th of October, 2010. We scoured Sun Top, not far from Mt. Rainier – wielding canvas nets and pocketing a few glass vials plugged with cotton balls. I was there to assist him in compiling data by finding spiders for particular locations within Washington State to get a better perspective on populations and distribution of species. You can take a look at that first trip here, in his Spider Collector’s Journal
Not long after that, I was single for the first time as an adult and Washington State was again my permanent home. I was thrust into despair and confusion, but my scientific and personal quests buoyed my spirit.
I don’t know precisely when, but some time after the trip to Sun Top, a science news reporter for The Seattle Times by the name of Sandi Doughton, contacted Rod to get some insight on the apparent increased population of spiders during the fall. It seems to perplex quite a lot of people who never take the time to observe these spiders when they are hatching into existence.
They’d wanted to take photos for the article, so Rod suggested they get a hold of me for that part of the story. I was delighted (and incredibly nervous!!) when Sandi called me to ask me questions related to spiders. I wished I knew more, knowing that she was recording this or that to include in the article – I couldn’t help feeling a bit dumb. I was no expert, just a chick with spiders in containers and too much time to ponder their every action! It was a fun experience, in spite of my insecurities.
The photo session wasn’t long after that. It seemed like some stretch of time and it was really neat seeing a photographer with a big DSLR snapping away at my captive spiders. I was amazed that Sandi and the photographer seemed genuinely interested in the subjects at hand, so I was increasingly comfortable in showing them the different species I had, and actually had fun working with Erika for some shots of me holding a male Tegenaria gigantea.
They left, and I wondered what they were going to include in the article. I assumed it was an online only thing.
27th of August, 2010 – Rod sent me an e-mail giving me a heads up that the article was published online. You can look at it here.
My family and I wondered if maybe, just maybe, the article would get published somewhere in the physical paper, so my Mom went out to buy the paper at our local Safeway.
She told me she couldn’t believe it at first, but was stunned to see my face on the front of the paper, a photo of me holding the Giant House Spider! It was bizarre! It was fantastic!
In the days that followed, loads of strangers from all over the country were getting a hold of me via Facebook, initiating conversations, asking me this and that about spiders or just commenting on the article and their feelings and interactions with spiders. I even had an opportunity to talk about spiders on a radio station before Rod. I did terrible, but it was another new experience for me.
Back to Facebook.
A handful of the folks who contacted me were definite weirdos, but overall it was a really rewarding experience. It was nice to know people appreciated someone being straightforward and curious about an unfairly treated creature that was, in fact, loved by many.
And, it was in this fashion that I befriended the man I mentioned at the beginning of this post.
It was that message that opened me up to another stage of my life – a most fantastic existence!

2 responses to “What The Spiders Taught Me

  1. Love the fact that you have a blog now! I've always found your writing and experiences so much fun to read… can't wait to see what else you (and this blog) have in store for us! And how awesome that the Seattle Times featured you in that article! I hadn't known about it until reading this blog entry. You rock, spider woman! Paving the way for arachnophiles everywhere! 😀 -Mandy Howe

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