Against the odds, nameless giants still linger in secrecy, even where curious humans are known to frequent. It takes the right human, in the right place, with the right knowledge, to identify it.
Shunning daylight, they come out from their retreats at darkest night and sit in wait; They are infinitely patient predators with an equally large appetite. Although their eight eyed gaze is forever fixed in the direction of unfortunate prey, they likely do not see it. Long arms, the ends of which are equipped with devilishly serrated talons, stretch amply out over coppery colored boulders or mossy logs.
The forest around them is cool and growing cooler with every hour after the setting of the sun. In the absence of light, something else fills the forest. The air is resounding with varied mating calls – masses of chirping, croaking frogs and a chorus of innumerable katydids and crickets. At times, one can hear the lonely voice of a Potoo or owl joining in.
They do not hear the serenades. Those other animals do not speak in the language of their people, that of vibrations. Our ear-less giants focus on a single bit of stimuli in these moments of stillness – a physical trigger. The trigger is navigating in the flowing stream below, or zig-zagging in the space of air and earth around them. These navigators are usually ignorant to the devastating power that looms nearby, and that is the point. One can expect that an anxiety of sorts must linger in every aspect of their lives regardless, for it is a life filled with a thousand possible deaths.
A moth flutters, a frog jumps, a fish swims. Agile insects crawl and climb and none of them are safe, for our giant is opportunistic and built to detect every single one of them. Sprouting out of many segmented legs are special hairs that can detect the slightest of disturbances, and tiny slits distributed along their body communicate various important conditions to their owner. This lineage and those of their relatives depend on them. These hairs are the trap.
A little push or pull on an individual hair and our predator very accurately estimates the whereabouts of the perpetrator – and with dizzying speed, closes in. It is a burst of decisive motion in the stillness, a flash to the lazy human eye. In the flurry it can be difficult to see what is happening, but the prey knows instantly because they can feel it. Some struggle violently by kicking, biting, thrashing – but few manage an escape.
Claws dig in and many arms hug and pull at once. It is the only hug they will ever receive. It is a hug of death, and it actively pulls the prey closer to the means that will bring it about. Our creature is now plunging thick fangs through the hardened exoskeleton, flesh or scales of the luckless victim. Incredible hydraulic strength crushes down, it is a great effort on the part of the attacker so far, but the work of killing is not finished. Through ducts in the beautiful curved pincers at the end of her chelicerae, venom is swiftly pumped. To the prey, inexplicable, horrible things are happening inside of them and every struggling movement becomes difficult, and soon, impossible. When the only pulse throbbing through the body of the prey is the pulse of our predators own digestive fluids, the prey ceases to be. It is dissolving. It is simply food. Our predominantly rusty and blue colored huntress is pleased. She makes herself comfortable on the substrate and rotates her meal this way and that with her blue-black legs, speckled with white, looking for new places to dig her fangs in. More must be broken down; it is a slow process.
This magnificent spider will feast upon the altered flesh for the rest of the night. Her abdomen will soon stretch heavily with the liquified contents of whatever prey it is she has defeated. It is merely another night for those of her race.
This has been every night for arachnids for hundreds of millions of years.
James and I are always eager to find spiders in Mindo. Spiders, as I frequently say, changed my life. As a result of that, a good part of my life is now devoted to exploring and protecting theirs. There is a ridiculous diversity of them in the cloud forest and they occupy an imaginative variety of places within it. Many of the species we encounter are very likely undescribed, and somehow, each trip to Mindo reveals a new face that cannot be matched to a name.
This is tremendously exciting to people obsessed with wildlife and life forms of all types. It’s very nearly a problem if you are interested in hiking as you are constantly stopping to admire something that pops up, but it is wonderful, as you learn to appreciate the fantastic diversity of life on a macroscopic level. From blue whales to springtails, life flourishes where it is permitted to do so.
If you were anything like me as a kid (and you probably were, since you are currently reading this blog) you might have imagined the glory of revealing something new to science, and quite possibly thinking that it is just so unlikely to happen in ones lifetime. The dream of exploring the unknown and making it known.
In my case, as an adult, you end up meeting very educated and knowledgeable people like Rod Crawford (The local arachnologist here in Washington State) For an expert in his field, it’s just part of what he does, and frequently! You realize that people who know a thing or two about a particular form of life are finding new ones in far flung places and sometimes, right in ones own backyard. It is still possible for one to make discoveries – it’s part of the excitement of traveling, nature photography and just enjoying nature in general, but it requires a lot of effort and interest. On the other hand, when I reflect on all the amazing encounters with wildlife so far in my life – knowing what you have is also something of a burden. You come to the realization that a given population exists in one type of habitat, say, along a single stream in a patch of forest and that that very patch of forest is in line for logging, mining or some residential development project…it can be pretty upsetting. But at least when one knows something, one can do something to improve upon a situation.
Anyways, James and I go out and about looking for photo subjects and that often takes us into some really neat habitats. A careful walk along a stream one night rewarded us with one of those new faces. James was ahead of me on the stream and once the light from his headlamp fell on it, he quickly pointed it out to me by calling it Ancylometes. He’d never seen Ancylometes in Ecuador before, and for a moment I doubted him. It was fairly late at night and I wondered if perhaps his imagination was a little wilder than usual due to the time. I met up with him and took a look.
It was clearly a huge female Ctenid, one of the largest, if not the largest true spider I had ever seen in the Mindo area. I had never seen Ancylometes before, but I had always wanted to, and according to James she was just as big as those he’d seen in Panama. Clearly a giant fishing spider, she’s over the water and in the right stance. Ok, well, wow. A Mindo Ancylometes! Coooooool.
She was sprawled out on a big, damp log along the stream. I stared in awe, and drew nearer, my curiosity pulling me to her like metal to a magnet. I had to admire her properly! She had robust legs with interestingly yellow setae sticking out from them. Her abdomen was reddish-orange, with little tufts poking out of it, reminding me of the smaller Enoploctenus. We had cameras on hand, of course, so I went about taking a few photos of her. It was…awkward. She was so much bigger than say, Cupiennius – other, smaller, but still quite large Ctenids that are easy to find in Mindo and many parts of Latin America. Her coloration made getting a good exposure on her a bit tricky, so I only took a few shots. I anticipated having another go at them some other night.
We couldn’t stop talking about it. As soon as we had internet, we hopped onto the Wandering Spiders website, a great resource covering the family Ctenidae. Maybe it was on their list?
We didn’t have a lot of time to browse, and at a glance, Ancylometes hewitsoni seemed something of a match. It wasn’t perfect, but the photo was pretty small. It was known from Brazil. So, we tentatively left it at that. As the days went by and James started to take a closer look at his photos of our Mindo individual he dismissed his Ancylometes ID completely. I was a little bit surprised!
I had not looked at my own photos of the adult female for many days, I thought it had to be the red and blue spider in the thumbnail sized photo on the website. James was firm in his revision, so, I had to see why for myself. He pulled up the cached Wandering Spiders page, then pulled up his photos of our ‘Ancylometes‘.
I could not argue. It was not Ancylometes after all!
It was a wonder that we came to that conclusion in the first place, but now the mystery made us all the more curious. We started to compare it to other ctenid species we were familiar with and realized that the female did share much in common with Enoploctenus. Some weeks prior, we had found our first adult male Enoploctenus. I chimped the photos of that male on my phone and wondered if the male of this giant, Enoploctenus look-alike might resemble that one, so I tried to build a mental picture of the male of the species for when we returned to the stream.
It wasn’t long before we found ourselves walking along the slick stones of the streambed, again, at night. This time, James really was very tired (He’d done an extensive night/photo walk that morning) and I had enjoyed a long nap during the day, so I was full of energy and very eager for arachno-encounters. For this walk, neither of us had brought along dSLR’s.
Some ways along our expedition, James spied spider legs between boulders and invited me to take a look. I scrambled into the area and kneeled, analyzing the situation. James stayed put, admiring the beast through binoculars some feet away, just beyond a fallen tree that cut across the stream. Determined to see the whole animal, I found a stick and probed the holes around the smaller boulders, encouraging the spider to come up and out from its hide. It resisted my first few attempts, hunkering deeper inside the miniature cave. Another prod – Wow could it move! I didn’t have time to process what I’d seen at first. It scurried out quick as lightning, taking me by surprise, but when it did settle, what we saw astonished us. It was a superbly long-legged adult male spider, shimmering in glossy copper and gold. I knew right away that this was the male of the mystery species. He looked just like the Enoploctenus male, although much, much bigger. It was also wearing a different coat of colors. He darted about almost spasmodically. It was alarming. He was somewhat intimidating to me in this way and he was more than willing to bite the prodder. What a spaz! I was in awe!
Over the weeks, we found even larger females, juveniles and what I think are the spiderlings. There were several impressive males to behold. I was fascinated to see them run across the surface of the water – they do it with enviable ease. It is sometimes infuriating…particularly when you are attempting to capture them. It’s a sad and hilarious thing to almost trap it, only to see it wildly bobbing away upstream like a driverless prairie wagon and all one can do is stand and watch. (although I took it as a challenge and pursued it upstream and into a ridiculous tangle of low hanging branches and shrubbery – JUST as James arrived to meet up with me. I’m sure it looked a bit strange to him! But I guess he is used to my weirdness…)
Here are some additional on white shots:
We still don’t have an ID for them, but it is part of future projects to be researched in the States and completed in Ecuador. 😀
Great post Shannon!! 🙂 I made some very nice encounters too this year in Peru! All the best to you and James