Wildlife Classics: Spiders




The spider is a wonderful architect. It is a born geometrician, rope walker, and weaver. It is wise without a teacher, shrewd without a guide, skilful without a master. Its subtle powers must be investigated.
George Caspard Kirchmayer


I have seen likewise from a single eggcase, innumerable fetuses born, yet so small as scarcely discernible by the eye. Still, as soon as they hatched they wove threads so fine that nothing could be more marvelous.
Ulisse Aldrovandi

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Orb-Weavers on the Wind
J. Henri Fabre

Light seeds have aeronautic apparatus—tufts, plumes, fly-wheels—which keep them up in the air and enable them to take distant voyages. In this way, at the least breath, the seeds of the dandelion, surmounted by a tuft of feathers, fly from their dry receptacle and waft gently in the air. The samaras, or keys, of the elm, formed of a broad, light fan with the seed cased in its centre; those of the maple, joined in pairs and resembling the unfurled wings of a bird; those of the ash, carved like the blade of an oar, perform the most distant journeys when driven before the storm.

Like the plant, the articulate animal also sometimes possesses traveling-apparatus, means of dissemination that allow large families to disperse quickly over the country.

Let us consider, in particular, those magnificent Spiders who, to catch their prey, stretch, between one bush and the next, great vertical sheets of meshes, resembling those of the fowler. I find a family of these Spiders at the beginning of May, on a yucca in the yard. The plant blossomed last year. The branching flower-stem, some three feet high, still stands erect, though withered. On the green leaves, shaped like a sword-blade, swarms the newly-hatched family. The wee beasties are a dull yellow, with a triangular black patch upon their stern.

When the sun reaches this part of the yard, the group falls into a great state of flutter. Nimble acrobats that they are, the little Spiders scramble up, one after the other, and reach the top of the stem. Here, marches and countermarches, tumult and confusion reign, for there is a slight breeze which throws the troop into disorder. I see no connected maneuvers. From the top of the stalk they set out at every moment, one by one; they dart off suddenly; they fly away, so to speak. It is as though they had the wings of a Gnat.

Forthwith they disappear from view. Nothing that my eyes can see explains this strange flight; for precise observation is impossible amid the disturbing influences out of doors. What is wanted is a peaceful atmosphere and the quiet of my study.

I gather the family in a large box, which I close at once, and install it in the animals’ laboratory, on a small table, two steps from the open window. Apprised by what I have just seen of their propensity to resort to the heights, I give my subjects a bundle of twigs, eighteen inches tall, as a climbing-pole. The whole band hurriedly clambers up and reaches the top. In a few moments there is not one lacking in the group on high. The future will tell us the reason of this assemblage on the projecting tips of the twigs.

The little Spiders are now spinning here and there at random: they go up, go down, come up again. Thus is woven a light veil of divergent threads, a many-cornered web with the end of the branch for its summit and the edge of the table for its base, some eighteen inches wide. This veil is the drill-ground, the work-yard where the preparations for departure are made.

Here hasten the humble little creatures, running indefatigably to and fro. When the sun shines upon them, they become gleaming specks and form upon the milky background of the veil a sort of constellation, a reflex of those remote points in the sky where the telescope shows us endless galaxies of stars. The immeasurably small and the immeasurably large are alike in appearance. It is all a matter of distance.

But the living nebula is not composed of fixed stars; on the contrary, its specks are in continual movement. The young Spiders never cease shifting their position on the web. Many let themselves drop, hanging by a length of thread, which the faller’s weight draws from the spinnerets. Then quickly they climb up again by the same thread, which they wind gradually into a skein and lengthen by successive falls. Others confine themselves to running about the web and also give me the impression of working at a bundle of ropes.

The thread, as a matter of fact, does not flow from the spinneret; it is drawn thence with a certain effort. It is a case of extraction, not emission. To obtain her slender cord, the Spider has to move about and haul, either by falling or by walking, even as the rope-maker steps backwards when working his hemp. The activity now displayed on the drill-ground is a preparation for the approaching dispersal. The travelers are packing up.

Soon we see a few Spiders trotting briskly between the table and the open window. They are running in mid-air. But on what? If the light fall favorably, I manage to see, at moments, behind the tiny animal, a thread resembling a ray of light, which appears for an instant, gleams and disappears. Behind, therefore, there is a mooring, only just perceptible, if you look very carefully; but, in front, towards the window, there is nothing to be seen at all.

In vain I examine above, below, at the side; in vain I vary the direction of the eye: I can distinguish no support for the little creature to walk upon. One would think that the beastie were paddling in space. It suggests the idea of a small bird, tied by the leg with a thread and making a flying rush forwards.

But, in this case, appearances are deceptive: flight is impossible; the Spider must necessarily have a bridge whereby to cross the intervening space. This bridge, which I cannot see, I can at least destroy. I cleave the air with a ruler in front of the Spider making for the window. That is quite enough: the tiny animal at once ceases to go forward and falls. The invisible foot-plank is broken. My son, young Paul, who is helping me, is astounded at this wave of the magic wand, for not even he, with his fresh, young eyes, is able to see a support ahead for the Spiderling to move along.

In the rear, on the other hand, a thread is visible. The difference is easily explained. Every Spider, as she goes, at the same time spins a safety-cord which will guard the rope-walker against the risk of an always possible fall. In the rear, therefore, the thread is of double thickness and can be seen, whereas, in front, it is still single and hardly perceptible to the eye.

Obviously, this invisible foot-bridge is not flung out by the animal: it is carried and unrolled by a gust of air. The Epeira, supplied with this line, lets it float freely; and the wind, however softly blowing, bears it along and unwinds it. Even so is the smoke from the bowl of a pipe whirled up in the air.

This floating thread has but to touch any object in the neighborhood and it will remain fixed to it. The suspension-bridge is thrown; and the Spider can set out. The South-American Indians are said to cross the abysses of the Cordilleras in traveling-cradles made of twisted creepers; the little Spider passes through space on the invisible and the imponderable.

But to carry the end of the floating thread elsewhere a draught is needed. At this moment, the draught exists between the door of my study and the window, both of which are open. It is so slight that I do not feel its; I only know of it by the smoke from my pipe, curling softly in that direction. Cold air enters from without through the door; warm air escapes from the room through the window. This is the drought that carries the threads with it and enables the Spiders to embark upon their journey.

I get rid of it by closing both apertures and I break off any communication by passing my ruler between the window and the table. Henceforth, in the motionless atmosphere, there are no departures. The current of air is missing, the skeins are not unwound and migration becomes impossible.

It is soon resumed, but in a direction whereof I never dreamt. The hot sun is beating on a certain part of the floor. At this spot, which is warmer than the rest, a column of lighter, ascending air is generated. If this column catch the threads, my Spiders ought to rise to the ceiling of the room.

The curious ascent does, in fact, take place.The problem of dissemination is now solved. What would happen if matters, instead of being brought about by my wiles, took place in the open fields? The answer is obvious. The young Spiders, born acrobats and rope-walkers, climb to the top of a branch so as to find sufficient space below them to unfurl their apparatus. Here, each draws from her rope-factory a thread which she abandons to the eddies of the air. Gently raised by the currents that ascend from the ground warmed by the sun, this thread wafts upwards, floats, undulates, makes for its point of contact. At last, it breaks and vanishes in the distance, carrying the spinstress hanging to it.

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It would seem that we have derived the word "Subtlety" from the idea of fine threads, which in a finely spun web escape the quickness of the eye.
Scalinger, quoted in Kirchmayer

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A Noiseless Patient Spider
Walt Whitman

A noiseless patient spider,
I mark'd where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark'd how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launch'd forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.

And you O my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them,
Till the bridge you will need be form'd, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.

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The life of the Spider is a short and fragile span, for they soon reach their maturity, and what takes little time to create, takes little time to die.
George Caspard Kirchmayer


Photography by D'Arcy Allison-Teasley

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