Zora & Syspira: wolf-like prowling spiders

Did you ever come across one of the most beautiful wolf spiders you’ve ever seen, only to realize that it’s not a wolf spider at all, because the eyes are all wrong? And if it’s not a wolf spider then what the heck is it because it doesn’t look like a spider from any of the other spider families you’re familiar with? No? Well, I had this experience recently. Twice, actually.

The first time it happened was during our epic journey from Toronto to southern Texas to California and then to Victoria (also known as #SpiderTrip2016 – check out some of the great photos Sean took along the way here). We stopped one morning in Joshua Tree National Park and flipped over some rocks to see if we could find any insects or spiders hiding underneath. Almost immediately, I uncovered this gorgeous spider with perfect desert camouflage.

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Not a wolf spider. Photo: Sean McCann.

The bold markings reminded me a bit of some funnel-web weavers in the family Agelenidae, but this spider didn’t have a web.

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Agelenopsis aperta (family Agelenidae, the funnel-web weavers). Yeah, this spider isn’t on a web either, but that’s because we put it on a rock to get a good photograph of it. Agelenids are usually pretty camera-shy, and they like to hide in their retreats. Photo: Sean McCann.

The sandy camouflage was similar to that of the beach-dwelling wolf spider Arctosa perita, but on closer inspection I realized the eyes were all wrong for it to be a lycosid.

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Arctosa perita, with characteristic wolf spider eye arrangement. Photo: Sean McCann.

The key to figuring out whether or not you’ve got a wolf spider is the eye arrangement. Lycosids are visual hunters that have their eyes arranged in three rows. The first row has four small eyes, the second has two large forward-facing eyes, and the third has another pair of slightly smaller eyes quite far back on the cephalothorax. From straight on, they may appear to have only 6 eyes (the first two rows).

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Wolf spider (family Lycosidae) eye arrangement. Photo: Sean McCann.

Syspira is clearly not a wolf spider – it has two rows of four eyes (or if you like, a smiley face eye arrangement – once you see it, you won’t be able to un-see it!) that are all pretty similar in size.

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From above, the eyes appear to be arranged in two more or less straight rows.

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I never would have guessed by looking at it that this spider is in fact a prowling spider in the family Miturgidae. When I think of miturgids, the first thing that comes to mind are the long-legged sac spiders in the genus Cheiracanthium.

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Cheiracanthium sp. – a yellow sac spider in the family Eutichuridae (formerly placed in Miturgidae, and before that, Clubionidae – spider systematics is complicated and constantly changing). Photo: Sean McCann.

These “yellow sac spiders” are famous for being common in homes, biting people all the time (actually, they rarely bite) and causing necrosis (they don’t, although bites are painful like a bee sting), and causing car trouble. They also aren’t actually in the family Miturgidae. They used to be, but they recently got separated into a new family called Eutichuridae, so I really need to update my mental inventory of spider families! Anyway, because the spider we found didn’t look at all like a long-legged sac spider, I didn’t think of looking in the family Miturgidae. It was only later that I was browsing Marshal Hedin’s wonderful collection of spider photographs on entirely unrelated business that I came across this photograph:

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Immature Syspira sp. (family Miturgidae, also known as the prowling spiders). Photo: Marshal Hedin. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

That’s it! That’s our spider! Not only does it look pretty much identical, but it was found in the very same desert where we found ours. Syspira! The trail goes cold here, however. I can’t say for sure what species it is because the most recent revision of the genus is an unpublished thesis that I can’t get my hands on at the moment (for what it’s worth, I suspect Syspira tigrina). And very little is known about the natural history of these spiders. They are nocturnal wandering hunters who hunker down under rocks or other objects during the heat of the day. They are a pretty good size – the body length (combined length of the two body segments) of the individual we found is probably about 15 mm.

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Female Syspira sp. Photo: Sean McCann.

Our second wolf-like spider is a much smaller critter (less than 5 mm in body length) that we found wandering the forest floor while we were hiking at Mount Work on southern Vancouver Island this past weekend.

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Wolf-like spider from Mount Work. Photo: Sean McCann.

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This photo shows how tiny this spider is relative to Sean’s thumbnail. Photo: Sean McCann.

This little guy definitely had us thinking he was a wolf spider until we took a closer look at his eyes. The eye pattern is sort of similar to that of a lycosid, but I only see two rows of four eyes rather than three distinct rows, and the middle two eyes in the second row (called the posterior median eyes if you want to be technical) are too close together. This eye arrangement is more similar to that of ctenids (wandering spiders, which we don’t have in Canada) or pisaurids (nursery web spiders and fishing spiders).

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Eye arrangement of our mystery spider. Photo: Sean McCann.

I guessed that this might be Zora hespera (another miturgid!) based on a drawing of a similar tiny spider in our field guide, and our friend and arachnological guru Robb Bennett quickly confirmed the guess. As it turns out, this species was only described in 1991, and Robb first documented its presence in British Columbia in 1996.

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Adult male Zora hespera (Miturgidae). Photo: Sean McCann.

The genus Zora used to be in the family Zoridae, which no longer exists (if you use the excellent Field Guide to the Spiders of California, however, you’ll still find Zora hespera listed as a zorid). The name Zora is also new – the genus was originally called Lycaena (which means female wolf) because of its similarity to wolf spiders, but the name had to be replaced because it was already being used for a butterfly genus. These spiders hunt on the ground and low vegetation during the day and are most often found in open sunny areas of wooded or disturbed habitats.

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Adult male Zora hespera. Note how small he is relative to the pine needles! He was pretty cryptic against the forest floor. Photo: Sean McCann.

The individual we found prowling the forest floor is a male (you can tell by the enlarged pedipalps) who may have been on the hunt for a female. Courtship in this species is brief and includes a leg-waving display on the part of the male. Once mated, the female produces an egg sac that she attaches to the underside of a rock or other object. A flat sheet of silk hides the egg sac and the female stands guard to protect her offspring from predators and parasites.

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Syspira sp. looking cryptic on the desert sand. Photo: Sean McCann.

Spider identification can be tricky! Next time you think you’ve found a wolf spider, take a closer look – it might be a wolf-like prowling spider, or something else altogether! The more time I spend learning about spiders, the more amazed I am by their beauty and diversity.

References

Adams, R. J. (2014). Field Guide to the Spiders of California and the Pacific Coast States (Vol. 108). University of California Press.

Bennett, R. G., & Brumwell, L. J. (1996). Zora hespera in British Columbia: a new spider family record for Canada (Araneae: Zoridae). Journal of the Entomological Society of British Columbia, 93, 105-110. PDF

Bradley, R. A. (2012). Common Spiders of North America. University of California Press.

Corey, D. T., & Mott, D. J. (1991). A revision of the genus Zora (Araneae, Zoridae) in North America. Journal of Arachnology, 55-61. PDF

Ubick, D., Paquin, P., Cushing, P., & Roth, V. (2005). Spiders of North America – an identification manual. American Arachnological Society.

Who eats spiders?

Spiders are awesome predators. Although there are a few exceptions, spiders are all professionals when it comes to eating other animals. But spiders have predators too! Who eats spiders? You might be surprised.

Birds are important predators of spiders, particularly in forest canopies.

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A white-throated toucan eating a large spider in Guyana. Photo: Sean McCann.

Insectivorous birds such as great tits eat a variety of arthropods including insects and spiders. Early in their nesting season, spiders comprise up to 75% of the food great tit parents bring to their chicks!

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Great tit (Parus major) carrying a false black widow spider – probably a meal for one of its offspring. Photo: Cliff, used with permission.

Spiders are also major predators of other spiders. Some wolf spider (family Lycosidae) species may even be some of their own most important predators. Wandering hunters like wolf spiders and jumping spiders tend to be opportunistic predators and will take most anything they come across, including other spiders.

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Wolf spider (Lycosidae) eating a female pholcid that was carrying her egg sac – a nutritious bonus snack! Photo: Sean McCann

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Another wolf spider (Lycosidae) eating a ground spider (Gnaphosidae). Photo: Sean McCann

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A large female jumping spider (Phidippus) eating a much smaller zebra jumper (Salticus scenicus) Photo: Sean McCann

Some species even specialize on other spiders! Cellar spiders (Pholcus phalangiodes) not only capture insects and spiders using their own webs, but also enter the snares of other spiders and trick the owners into thinking they are prey by vibrating the silk lines. When the resident spider approaches what it thinks will be its next meal, it soon becomes dinner itself. The cellar spider’s incredibly long legs allow it to keep a safe distance while it subdues much larger spiders by wrapping them with silk.

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Cellar spider (Pholcus phalangiodes) wrapping a much larger spider (possibly a lycosid) with silk in preparation for a very filling meal. Photo: Karla Thompson, used with permission.

Perhaps the most fearsome enemies of spiders are spider wasps in the family Pompilidae. Huge ‘tarantula hawks’ in the genus Pepsis (they can be up to 8 cm long with a 10 cm wingspan!) can take even very large tarantulas. First the wasp stings the spider, paralyzing it almost immediately. But things get much, much worse from there.

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Tarantula hawk (Pepsis sp.) in French Guiana. This enormous wasp is 3 inches (8 cm) long! Photo: Sean McCann.

The wasp drags the paralyzed tarantula into a burrow, and lays a single egg on its abdomen. The spider remains paralyzed and trapped underground until eventually it meets its gruesome demise when the wasp larva emerges and begins to eat it alive.

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A spider wasp dragging its victim (a paralyzed tarantula) into a burrow where it will become food for a baby wasp. Photo: David Crummey, licensed under CC BY 2.0

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Poor spider! Photo: David Crummey, licensed under CC BY 2.0

So birds, spiders, and wasps are regular spider-eaters, but many others animals also partake now and then. Here are a few occasional predators of spiders: 

A toad’s diet may be up to 5% spiders.

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Southern toad, Anaxyrus (Bufo) terrestris, eating a spider. Photo: Scott Beazley, licensed under CC BY 2.0

Lizards also eat spiders. In the Bahamas and the Caribbean, islands without anoles have 10 to 30 times as many spiders as islands without these lizards, suggesting that they can be rather important predators.

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A lizard eating a spider. Photo: Jo Garbutt, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Monkeys and humans also sometimes eat spiders! Fried tarantulas are a delicacy in some places in the world, including Cambodia. Although entomophagy (eating insects) is becoming popular as a more sustainable alternative to meat, I have to say that I’m not a big fan of the idea of eating tarantulas, which are slow-growing and long-lived creatures.

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Fried tarantulas in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Photo: Matthew Stevens, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Finally, fish, bats and shrews also eat spiders occasionally. This certainly isn’t an exhaustive list, but I hope it gives you an idea of the range of animals that eat spiders. Stay tuned for future posts on some of the surprising things that spiders eat!

References

Edgar, W. D. (1969). Prey and predators of the wolf spider Lycosa lugubrisJournal of Zoology, 159(4), 405-411.

Foelix, R. (2010). Biology of spiders. Oxford University Press.

Gunnarsson, B. (2007). Bird predation on spiders: ecological mechanisms and evolutionary consequences. Journal of Arachnology, 35(3), 509-529.

Jackson, R. R., & Brassington, R. J. (1987). The biology of Pholcus phalangioides (Araneae, Pholcidae): predatory versatility, araneophagy and aggressive mimicry. Journal of Zoology, 211(2), 227-238.

Naef‐Daenzer, L., Naef‐Daenzer, B., & Nager, R. G. (2000). Prey selection and foraging performance of breeding Great Tits Parus major in relation to food availability. Journal of Avian Biology, 31(2), 206-214.

Nyffeler, M., & Knörnschild, M. (2013). Bat predation by spiders. PLOS ONE, 8(3), e58120.

 

The mystery of the burrow-dwelling sand dune spider

On a walk at Iona Beach a couple of weeks ago with Sean (who kindly provided all the photos that follow) I came upon a small hole in the sand, and after poking at it a bit, realized it was a silk-lined burrow with what looked like a trap door. We tried to figure out who lived there, but didn’t find anyone inside.

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The mystery burrow where this natural history adventure all began!

I went home puzzling about the mysterious burrow-dweller, and emailed our local spider expert Robb Bennett to see if he had any idea what kind of spider the owner might be. His response that it was probably a wolf spider burrow came as a surprise to me. I don’t know a lot about wolf spiders (family Lycosidae), and although I have occasionally seen them hunkered down in shallow depressions under stones and logs, I wasn’t aware that many species build quite elaborate silk-lined burrows. As it turns out, some lycosids overwinter or oviposit in burrows, or hunt by waiting just inside the burrow entrance for prey. One genus, Geolycosa, spends almost its entire life underground, in burrows up to 17cm deep (Dondale & Redner 1990)!

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Before this mystery began, I had only seen lycosids associated with shallow burrows, like this one we found on Mt. Tolmie.

A few days later, we returned to the beach to look for more spiders and other arthropods. We encountered several jumping spiders, including this one.

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 A Sitticus male?

After a while, Sean spotted this beautiful and well-camouflaged male wolf spider.

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After being disturbed, this spider alternated between lightning-fast sprints and freezing with its legs splayed out against the sand. It takes full advantage of its banded legs and mottled body coloration, which allow it to all but disappear against the background!

Next we encountered two females of the same species carrying their spiderlings on their abdomens. Lycosid females have special abdominal hairs onto which the inner layer of spiderlings cling (Rovner et al. 1973).

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The second female we found had a smaller brood of larger spiderlings hanging on mainly to the underside of her abdomen.

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Here’s a portrait of the same female as the previous photo, this time showing the characteristic lycosid eye arrangement.

A little while later, much to my excitement, I came across another silk-lined burrow!

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Another mystery burrow, very similar to the original!

Using a bit of dry grass to scratch at the sand-covered silk surrounding the burrow entrance, I was able to entice the resident spider towards the opening. And just like that, the mystery was solved! The burrow belonged to a female of the same wolf spider species we had been running into all evening as we explored the beach.

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The spider soon approached the entrance of her burrow to investigate the source of the disturbance.

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After some more serious disturbance resulting in the opening of the burrow now looking a lot more like the (also disturbed) entrance of the original mystery burrow, the spider was persuaded to come out entirely.

After a successful evening of sleuthing, we went home and identified our cryptic burrow-dwelling spider as Arctosa perita. This species is typically found on sand dunes or sandy heathland, and only the females construct silk-lined burrows (Dondale & Redner 1990). It is introduced to North America, and is apparently only present in certain areas of southern British Columbia. The similarly coloured beach wolf spider Arctosa littoralis (beautifully photographed by Ted MacRae here) is native to North America.

The burrow entrance can be cinched up and made effectively invisible to humans, but this does not prevent some predators from detecting the spiders inside. In Britain, Arctosa perita is the preferred prey of the spider wasp Pompilus plumbeus, which uses a combination of smell and touch to locate the spiders within their burrows (Bristowe 1948). This spider (and other lycosids) can detect polarized light, and this species is somewhat famous for being able to navigate using the sun or the moon (references in Dondale & Redner 1983).

Arctosa perita doesn’t seem to have a well established common name, but I found it referred to as the ‘sand bear-spider’ by Steven Falk on Flickr (check out his lovely photo set), which I quite like. The genus name Arctosa is based on the Greek word for bear, ἄρκτος (arctos). The species name ‘perita‘ means ‘mountain dweller’ in Greek which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense unless you consider the sand dunes that are apparently the preferred habitat of this species to be very small mountains. I will now always think of it as the mysterious burrow-dwelling tiny sandy mountain bear-spider! Catchy, right?

Bonus fun fact about wolf spider names:

The type genus is Lycosa, which of course means ‘wolf’. Several other genera were subsequently named to rhyme with Lycosa, with the names based on other carnivorous animals: Alopecosa (fox), Crocodilosa, Dingosa, Hyaenosa, Lynxosa, Mustelicosa (weasel), and Pardosa (leopard).

References:

Bristowe, W. S. (1948). NOTES ON THE HABITS AND PREY OF TWENTY SPECIES OF BRITISH HUNTING WASPS. Proceedings of the Linnean Society of London, 160: 12–37. doi: 10.1111/j.1095-8312.1948.tb00502.x

Dondale, C. D., & Redner, J. H. (1983). Revision of the wolf spiders of the genus Arctosa CL Koch in North and Central America (Araneae: Lycosidae)Journal of Arachnology, 11: 130.

Dondale, C. D., & Redner, J. H. (1990). The insects and arachnids of Canada. Part 17. The wolf spiders, nurseryweb spiders, and lynx spiders of Canada and Alaska. Araneae: Lycosidae, Pisauridae, and Oxyopidae. Publication-Agriculture Canada (English ; 1856).

Rovner, J. S., Higashi, G. A., & Foelix, R. F. (1973). Maternal behavior in wolf spiders: the role of abdominal hairs. Science, 182: 11531155. doi: 10.1126/science.182.4117.1153

The spiders in and around our apartment in Gualaco

Our first field expedition is scheduled for next Monday, and we still have a lot of preparations to make, including a trip back to Tegucigalpa to submit some official paperwork and buy additional equipment. While we’ve been settling in and getting things organized here in Gualaco, we haven’t gone out much, except for a visit to our new friend Rafael’s farm. That’s not to say we haven’t had a chance to find more spiders though!

On the walls (inside and out) of our new apartamento alone, we’ve found two lovely jumping spiders (Salticidae),

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and a very handsome wandering spider (Ctenidae) with neat spikes on his abdomen.

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We were somewhat less enthused to spot several of these other arachnids on one of our outside walls…

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A questing tick (family Ixodidae)! We would definitely prefer not to become a host for any of these arachnids.

Just outside is a yard full of plants, rocks, mud, and debris, which is variously occupied by the horses, pigs, dogs and other animals that wander freely through the town. This explains the abundance of ticks, and from now on we’ll be careful of wandering through this area!

At night, under the light of a headlamp, the yard sparkles with the eyes of many spiders. The other evening, a very brief investigation yielded the discovery of several wolf spiders.

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A mother wolf spider carrying her spiderlings (called pulli-carrying behaviour). Almost all female lycosids carry their offspring on their abdomens, with some exceptions.

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A male lycosid that looks like the same species as the female above.

If anyone knows more about the identities of these spiders, please let me know in the comments!

Thanks, as usual, to Sean for the beautiful photos!

Hola from Honduras!

We finally made it to our destination, the town of Gualaco in the department of Olancho, after three long days of travel (including an unexpected detour through San Pedro Sula due to poor weather preventing our plane from landing in Tegucigalpa). After spending two nights in a local hotel, we’re now installed in an affordable apartment (the rent is about a tenth of the cost of similar accomodation back home in Vancouver) that will serve as our home base for the coming months.

Things are definitely different here – for one thing, there is no hot running water in Gualaco.  This is the slightly scary, and mostly ineffective, electric showerhead that was in our hotel room. We are not sure yet whether we’ll invest in one for our new home.

Yesterday, we took a trip up some very interesting roads to the pine forest where we’ll start our caracara work. We visited the site where a local named Isidro (who will be our guide for the next month) monitored a red-throated caracara nest last year.

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We had a very long and interesting ride, with eight people in one 4-wheel drive pickup, along some extremely bumpy and muddy roads. We passed this unfortunate boa constrictor, which evidently chose the wrong time to cross the road.

Although we didn’t have much time to stop and investigate or photograph cool animals as we hiked in and out from the nest site, Sean did manage to snap a couple of shots of spiders that we passed by.

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A wolf spider (family Lycosidae) with her silk-wrapped egg sac attached to her spinnerets.

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An Argiope (Araneidae) with a beautiful star-shaped stabilimentum.

We also have plenty of familiar spider friends in our apartment, that appear to be helping with the moth infestation.

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Lucky for us, our apartment contains an abundance of cellar spiders (Pholcidae)! Here’s a female with her egg sac clasped in her chelicerae, and an attending male.

Once we’ve had more time to explore local habitats, I am sure I will be able to post lots more about the spiders of Honduras! Hasta luego!

Thanks to Sean for all the photos.