Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

December 25, 2007

Hark! The Herald Spider Clings

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 4:42 pm

  I recently encountered an unseasonal sight in the form of a dangling spider.  The tiny beast was swaying gently in the wind while suspended from an invisible silken thread.  It appeared to be a lifeless body without control of its earthly form – hung by Dame Winter as a testament to her mastery of fragile life forms.  After all, the temperatures have held below the freezing mark this month and only the hardy survive.  In sympathy, I swept my hand through the space above it in order to sever the thread that held it up for display and allow it to tumble to earth.  

  To my surprise, the form that fell onto the snow below was not a lifeless one. The spider was alive. It slowly uncurled and began to walk across the snow drift. This being Christmas week, I declared “Hark” and bent down to examine it. The slender arachnid was a Long-jawed Orb Weaver. These narrow spiders are common summer residents who spin their radiating webs in wetland habitats.  

  Long-jaws overwinter as inactive juveniles that stay tucked away under the cover of bark.  Winter birds eat these things, so the juveniles must stay well hidden if they want to see adulthood.  It is very likely that this spider survived a feathered assault by bungee jumping to silken safety. Had I not helpfully cut its line (sorry), it would have quickly returned to its hiding location via its safety rope.  

  As it was, the disgusted little orb-weaver was forced to walk across an icy layer of snow in order to regain its home tree. This freezing feat of feets is nothing short of a miracle (although I’m pretty sure the spider did not view the situation in this light). Spiders are hydraulic beasts that operate on internal fluids. Those fluids are mostly composed of water which means they should freeze solid in these conditions.  The reason they don’t is due to the animal’s ability to reduce its so-called supercooling points through a process known as thermal hysteresis. This is not to be confused with thermal hysteria, which is the human trait of getting all hot and bothered.  At the risk of oversimplifying things, let’s just say that hysteresis involves pumping the body full of additives such as glycerol that alter the freezing level of body liquids. 

  It takes a few weeks for a spider to get to this level, but once imbued with anti-freeze protection they can laugh off the worst of winter’s remaining rage. My spider was not laughing by the time he reached the base of the tree. 

  There is another reason why I chose to profile a lowly Prestone spider on this Christmas Day.  Spiders do play a role in traditional Christmas legend. They are credited with the invention of tinsel, for instance. According to an old German tale the silken webbing laid upon a tree by a bunch of curious spiders was turned into silver garlands by the touch of the Christ child (or Santa Claus – the details are fuzzy).   According to another legend, a spider was credited with saving the Savior himself. When the Holy family fled to Egypt during the reign of King Herod they sought the shelter of a cave in order to elude the king’s soldiers. As the family slept within, a spider wove her web over the entrance as an act of kindness. When the soldiers approached the cave they elected not to search it because the web indicated that no one had entered it recently.  They moved on and the Christ child survived.   

  Apparently this ancient spider was carrying on a family tradition.  The same act had been performed while protecting the great Japanese warrior Yoritomo, the prophet Mohammed, and David – the future king of Israel.  Spiders, such as my long-jawed friend, are apparently content with small acts of kindness. Their Christmas message to us is one of “Peace on earth and good will toward men.”

2 Comments »

  1. The simplest, yet greatest, of messages…

    Comment by Kathy — December 30, 2007 @ 5:36 pm

  2. Ger, Enjoyed your harking a lowly spider. I couldn’t bring myself to harm one on Christmas day, I just looked the other way when I spied it in the house, figuring since it Was Christmas all the beasts the Good Lord made should share in the Peace of Christ. Thanks for your very informative observations. They help me appreciate the little guys even more!

    Comment by Sara Wykes — December 30, 2007 @ 10:01 pm

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