Arachnology Adventures with Rod Crawford – August 6th, 2010

In Arachnologist Rod Crawford’s lab, there is a big black and white map of Washington State. It’s been diced up in a grid of latitudes and longitudes, and red dots flare up from it like chicken pox. Rod’s work involves visiting as many of these still blank, cubed up sections of the state as possible. His goal? Find the spiders!

Check out his field collecting journal here: http://crawford.tardigrade.net/journal/index.html#

I was lucky enough to help him with this project back in 2010, the 6th of August. This would be our first time meeting in person, after many months of me bombarding him with silly questions of all kinds about spiders, via e-mail. The spider collectors team usually consists of himself, field assistant Laurel Ramseyer, and whoever else could tag along for the expedition, students, curious folk or friends. That day, it was me…a greenhorn arachnid enthusiast.

I didn’t drive then, (and I still don’t!) so Laurel and Rod picked me up from my house. (Funny enough, Rod doesn’t drive either, and his reasoning is his laser-like focus on a single task, which driving complicates – he refuses to do it for fear of being a danger to others!) Rod had his eye on a part of the state about 16 miles NE of Mt. Rainier.

The drive there was scenic, the area is one of my favorites. We were surrounded by lush forests, fields of flowers and a golden summer sun.

We sampled a few different locations, first being the Dalles Campground, where I scoured trees, their trunks, infrastructure and wooden park signs for arachnids. My experience up until then was with common backyard and indoor spiders, Eratigena atrica (formerly Tegenaria gigantea, duellica, atrica) as well as Callobious severus. I prefer spiders alive and this was my first collecting trip. Admittedly, I struggled with the idea and act of finding beautiful species that were mostly new to me and right away plunging these adult individuals into a vial of alcohol, where they would quickly drown and die. It bothered me to see them struggling to escape the little vials (and it still does!) but I also understood the need to collect these specimens.

As I prowled and refined my spider hunting skills, I also learned the rules of collecting, gathering relevant data for the specimens I was finding. I made silly mistakes here and there, but Rod was a patient teacher and was quick to set me straight when I goofed up. Rod sifted leaf litter, and I observed his use of various tools and methods for picking spiders out from the plant material.

We then moved to a new location, working the fields just outside the fence of the McCullough Seed Orchard, where super trees of some sort are farmed. I was handed a big burlap beating net, which I had only ever seen people using in photos or documentaries. It put a big smile on my face to finally use one, although I’d always imagined myself chasing beetles or butterflies with such a net instead of…spiders.

Rod and Laurel demonstrated different ways of working with the net, depending on what was around you. In the field, you’d sweep it across the grass and flowers, alternating directions and occasionally flip the net inside out to look for specimens. Another tactic was harrassing the branches of a tree or a bush, encouraging whatever was living on them to fall into the mouth of the sack. Often times, dozens of spiders would rush out from the cloth pit in a panic, clambering upwards instinctively. A few small spiders managed to escape this way, ballooning up and into the warm August breeze while I was distracted by bigger, easier to capture species.

Adult female Tibellus, looking cryptic...

Cell phone photo of Adult female Tibellus, looking cryptic…

As I swept the fields, a dandelion caught my eye, and I noticed a spider on it that I had not seen in person before. I had imagined it to be much larger than it turned out to be. This was a spider of the genus Tibellus, a philodromid – ‘Slender Crab Spider’.
These spiders are a sit and wait predator, unlike several other types of spiders that utilize a web to capture prey. Unfortunately, back in 2010 I didn’t have a proper camera, only a compact point and shoot that I neglected to bring with me during this trip, so I have no photos of the spiders I’d found. I did find another Tibellus more recently, this one having been found in Port Angeles. (Pictured on the left)

Satisfied with collecting work at that location, we migrated up the side of the mountain, heading for Sun Top.

Rod sums it up nicely: ” The lookout was staffed that day, letting us drive all the way up Sun Top; the summit area is an open parkland with small subalpine firs, the flowers now fading but still nice. Among us, we beat 11 species from fir foliage. Meadow foliage was much less productive with only 2 species identifiable. Shannon’s young eyes spotted active Zelotes fratris and (prize catch of the trip) a day-active male of folding-door spider Antrodiaetus occultus, the first found north of Mt. Rainier.” – View his photo album of this trip here:  http://crawford.tardigrade.net/journal/album7015.html

I busied myself by scanning the surfaces of boulders that were strewn about the top of the mountain. Only minutes into searching, I noticed a huge and unusually dark female Phidippus johnsoni, crawling excitedly in the sunlight . She was almost bumble-bee like in her movements – erratic and hyperactive. Like the Tibellus I found earlier in the day, this was a spider I had seen in photos, but never in person. This female was unusual in her coloration, though, being mostly black. I was familiar with Phidippus audax, having kept several for pets, but none of us were confident about the ID of this one, although I initially guessed it to be P. johnsoni, based on having studied the Revision of the jumping spiders of the genus Phidippus

Rod plopped her in a vial, and she would later have her identity confirmed when he took a closer look at her under the microscope in his lab. In the realm of science, a hunch is just not good enough!

Later on, I found myself creeping between shadowy patches of forest. I had my net in hand and thought I’d beat more branches. Before long, though, another odd blob was caught in my peripheral vision. The shape was familiar this time, something I had in fact seen before, but only recently. It was slowly walking in a little dirt patch between small groups of trees that were nestled between even bigger ones. I stepped closer and stood over it, observing the creature between my feet. Crouching to get a better look, I could see it was an adult male folding trapdoor spider. It was a beautiful specimen, considerably bigger than the Antrodiaetus pacificus individuals I had seen at home. I recalled Rod having mentioned something about Antrodiaetus occultus on the way to the mountain, something about wondering it any could be found in this location, and I wondered if maybe that is what I had. I searched for him and gave him my catch. I was pleased that he was excited about my discovery! We sat at a picnic table and Rod told me a bit about the species. I held it in my hands and he took a few photos of it. It was his opinion that I’d ‘earned my keep’ for the day. 🙂

Towards the days end, we toiled in another location. Rod explored every nook and cranny and also sifted more plant material, Laurel searched pine cones and I took to rummaging about the forest again. I found an interesting pile of damp wood and began peeling bits of bark and wood away from the main chunk, enticed by the presence of silk on a fallen branch, which for a while I thought might have just been some fungal growth. On peeling a clump of wood away, I was treated to a mysterious sight: A dwarf tarantula!

Ok, so it wasn’t a tarantula by definition, but a teensy mygalomorph. The spider was absolutely puny, and I would have never imagined it to be an adult female, had it not been guarding a healthy looking egg-sac. I put her in a vial and showed her to Rod. He explained that this was Microhexura idahoana, the worlds smallest member of the suborder. I was permitted to keep her alive, and she was my pet for many months. I fed her a diet of pinhead crickets and elongate springtails. Anything else was too big! Here is video of that very individual. I compare her to some every day objects – a standard plastic bead and some coins.

Selectively quoting Rod about the rest of the day: “We spent out last couple of hours at a subalpine forest site south of the summit where we did even better: I sifted 7 species from fir litter, all of us collected from dead wood getting 9 species, and Laurel got 10 species from 166 white pine cones – also an undescribed Blabomma taken just once before, plus a microspider not yet placed even to genus. Even sweeping roadside verge and beating one especially lush fir tree added species. I was amazed by the day’s total of 44 spider species. It sets a new record for August!”

Overall, it was a fantastic learning experience and a real adventure. It would be another year until I managed to join Rod Crawford on another spider collecting trip, taking place not too long after assisting James with his photo work in Ecuador. The second collecting trip took on an epic character that I’ll elaborate on in another post. Thankfully, I’d picked up the Canon G12 by that time, so I have decent photos of the whole day!

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