There are some things that I would expect a youngster to bring home from preschool. Among these would be drawings to hang up on the fridge, simple arts and crafts projects, and even perhaps a cold caught from another child.
What I wouldn’t expect is what Hunter Meader brought home to his family — a colorful, voluptuous spider. Hunter did not find the spider himself; but since no one in his class could identify this arachnid, this budding naturalist took on the identification task himself.
Which is how this spider came to sit on my desk.
It was a full-figured spider, with a large bulbous yellow and brown abdomen and the usual eight legs (bright red like its head and with brown tips). The arachnid in question turned out to be a marbled orb spider, a nice catch, since these spiders tend to be somewhat reclusive and come out mainly to capture their prey.
Typically a late-season spider, this marbled orb weaver was on its last legs, so to speak. These spiders live for only a year (one season, really). Hunter’s spider was a female, identified by its brighter color and larger size in comparison to the males of that species. By this time of year, the orb weaver spider has already laid her eggs and wrapped them in a silken egg case to overwinter. The eggs will hatch in the spring and begin the cycle anew.
Not only distinctive in appearance, orb weaver spiders also have a distinctive web. It is the typical vertical circle-type web, but its construction and organization is remarkable. The orb weaver will begin by throwing caution to the wind — or, more accurately, silk thread to the wind. This initial thread creates the first support for the structure. The spider then drops a curved thread from the middle of the first line, creating a “Y” shaped frame. From this “Y,” radial lines are laid until a full web is achieved. The final product is a very organized, symmetrical web. What an (un)tangled web she weaves! Contrast this to the messy webs of the cobweb spiders.
This work is all for naught, since the web, which takes about an hour to create in the evening, will be deconstructed in the morning. The orb spider eats the silk and reprocesses it for the next day’s construction project. Mother Nature is evidently the original recycler.
The old web will never see the light of day, but nor will the spider. Orb spiders have poor vision, even if they are endowed with eight eyes. They are still effective predators because they can feel the vibration of their prey struggling in their web.
It is a case of not see and not be seen for the orb weavers. Often orb weavers will hang out in a retreat web, a curled leaf that provides cover and protection while they await their next victim. Once a catch has been made, orb spiders will walk out to collect their meal. They do not need to worry about getting stuck in their own web because they cover themselves with oil that will keep them from sticking.
From there, the orb spider will suck its prey dry. It has no chewing mouthparts to eat with, only sucking parts for food consumption. Theirs is truly a liquid diet.
I never anticipated that Hunter’s preschool spider would turn out to have such complexity! But what I have learned about spiders, and also children, is to expect the unexpected. And if you are Hunter’s parents, also additionally carry a spider identification guide.
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.