Good Mamas

Motherhood: All love begins and ends there.

~Robert Browning

It has been a good few months for new mothers at work with several new babies among the staff. So, it seems only appropriate that I share a couple of extraordinary mothers from the Garden’s animal kingdom as well. First, an update on the amazing green lynx spider that I wrote about last time. You may recall she had been sitting with her egg case for a couple of months in the top of some rattlesnake master seed heads in our Piedmont Habitat. Her spiderlings emerged around October 20 after having their egg sac already guarded for about a month by their attentive mom.

Green Lynx spider with yellow jacket

Green lynx spider with a meal of yellow jacket last week (click photos to enlarge)

I have been keeping an eye on her off and on since the eggs hatched and am amazed at her site fidelity, even after most of her offspring had seemingly dispersed. Last week she caught a yellow jacket on one of the warm days when flying insects were out and about. This is the first prey I have seen her capture in all this time, although I heard from some other staff that she had caught a couple of other insects during her ordeal.

Green lynx and young on Dec 1

She is still at it on on December 1…amazing!

I made a special visit to see her last Friday, on December 1, to confirm that she had made it into another month. She is still at it and to my surprise, when I checked my photos, I saw one of her offspring sitting next to her on the egg sac (zoom in on the photo above). It looks like it has molted at least once since I photographed the group in October because the shape and color pattern now more closely resembles the adult female. I plan to keep tabs on this dedicated mom, but I don’t expect her to last much longer, with another wave of freezing temperatures headed our way later this week. She has been guarding this egg sac since late September, a truly amazing feat of motherhood.

Salamander pool in winter NCBG

The salamander pool was high and dry last week

While looking for some trees to use in an upcoming activity last week, I decided to check out the salamander pool in the woods near my office. When I started work last winter its water surface was probably 5o feet across and was a hotbed of activity of animal life, shifting from spotted salamanders and upland chorus frogs in winter to American toads and dragonflies as the seasons progressed. With the lack of rainfall this fall, it was no surprise to see it totally dry last week. This is typical for many vernal pools, and is one reason they are such hot spots for breeding amphibians (due to the lack of fish). I gently lifted a few of the smaller logs lying in what had been the water-filled area this summer, hoping to find some salamanders.

Marbled salamander eggs

Marbled salamander eggs under a log

After turning a few, I found part of what I was looking for – an egg mass of a marbled salamander, but minus the attending adult female. Females typically lay their eggs in September and October in these parts, usually under a log near the edge of a low-lying area that fills with water in the winter and spring. She stays with her eggs until rains begin to fill the pool and cover them (usually late October to December) and then she heads back to her woodland home nearby, leaving the eggs to hatch with hours or days of being inundated. If the rains don’t come, she may head back to the woods before they hatch. I wrote about this interesting species in a post a couple of years ago when we found a very late clutch of eggs (in March) that was finally about to be covered by water. I think the thing that surprised me the most that day was how quickly one of the eggs hatched after I placed it in a small container of water. It hatched within just a few minutes! As reported in my bible of salamander biology (Salamanders of the United States and Canada by James W. Petranka), this is¬† caused by the release of digestive enzymes¬†(from hatching glands on the snout) that dissolve the egg capsule and allow the embryo to escape.

marbled salamander guarding her eggs 1

An adult female marbled salamander guarding her eggs under a different log

Turning over a nearby log, i found a large female marbled salamander curled up around her egg mass. Studies have shown that egg clutches where the female remains with them until they are covered by water have a higher offspring survival, perhaps because she helps protect them from predation or getting too dry. I carefully laid the log back in place, and wished her well and for rains to soon fill this pool. Another case of a dedicated mother.

newt under log in dry vernal pool

Red-spotted newt under another log

Lastly, on a non-motherly note…the last log I looked under had a somewhat crumpled-looking red-spotted newt laying under it. At first, I thought it was dead, but looking a bit closer, its eyes were open, so I presume it is just lying in a protected spot, waiting for the waters to rise. Let the rains begin…

Big Cat in the Garden

Venom spitting spiders hatching out all over Alabama make great mothers.

~Ben Raines, title of article in Real Time News from AL.com

Green Lynx spider with hatchlings

Green lynx spider and recently hatched spiderlings (click photo to enlarge)

You may remember this photo from about a month ago in another post. It is a female green lynx spider perched near her recently hatched egg case, with many spiderlings visible in the surrounding web mesh.

Green lynx spiderlings

Close-up of spiderlings

Their egg cases (usually only one per female per season) contain anywhere from 50 up to 600 eggs. Mating occurs in late summer and egg are laid in September or October.

Green lynx spider with wasp and freeloader fly

Green lynx spider with one of their favorite prey, a wasp (note the small flies clinging to the wasp, most likely members of the so-called free-loader fly group that steals a meal from a large predator while it feeds)

Green lynx spiders are named for their bright green color and their stealthy hunting technique, much like a big cat. They do not make webs for capturing prey, but rather tend to stalk around flowers and then leap on their victims (often taking fairly large wasps and bees). These are one of our most recognizable spiders, females being large (3/4+ inch body length) with long legs adorned with stiff black spines. They have a distinctive hexagon-shaped whitish eye patch with eight keen eyes.

Green lynx spider near egg case after it hatched and broke free

A late season female has changed color and has one lone spiderling clinging to the seed head just to the right of her abdomen

Late in the season, they often change color, gradually losing the bright green and slowly blending more into the fall colors of the wildflower stalks where they usually place their egg case. This species is well known for guarding their eggs, and this female was no exception. She first spins a loose irregular web in the top of wildflower stalk or small shrub, and then lays her eggs, protected by a somewhat flattened egg case having several irregular projections. She then takes up a nearby position and guards her eggs, aggressively taking on any would be egg-eaters like ants or egg parasitoids. Eggs hatch into postembryos within about 2 weeks. After another 2 weeks, the postembryos molt and the now fully formed spiderlings soon emerge. The female often assists their emergence by tearing open the egg sac. Most of the young spiders disperse after a few days, but the mother continues to stay in the vicinity in “guard mode”. Perhaps it is to protect any stragglers (look for the one spiderling hiding on the seed head to the right of her abdomen in the photo above).

Green lynx spider egg case after hatching

Spider egg case weeks after the hatch

This particular spider has been a frequent stop on my tours this fall as she was right next to a path, and quite visible if you knew where to look. The amazing thing to me is how long she stayed with her eggs. The first photo was taken on October 20, a day after the eggs hatched. She had already been guarding her egg sac for at least 3 weeks at that point. I would check on her every time I walked past. On November 14, I noticed the egg case, and the female, were not in their usual place. I found the egg sac a few inches outside the web mesh, probably dislodged by wind or rain. The female had simply moved to the back side of the rattlesnake master seed heads.

Green lynx spider at end of season

The female holding her egg sac after I retrieved it

After taking photos of both the egg case and the female, I decided to move the egg sac back over to its former position. She stretched out one of her legs as I pushed the sac through the silk lines, and then gingerly pulled the egg sac from my fingertip, and clung to it again as she had for the past several weeks. A couple of days later, I showed some coworkers how she would take it from my hands and we all looked at her through magnifiers, admiring her markings and her motherly instincts. We discussed some aspects of the life history of this species and I wanted to find out more, so I did a web search when I returned to the office. That was when I stumbled across the article title used in the quote at the start of this post. It turns out this species has the unusual ability to squirt venom a distance up to several inches as part of her defensive strategy while guarding her eggs! A good mother, indeed. The venom is reportedly an eye irritant in humans, but it appears as though we were all lucky as we moved in for a closer look (I think my coworkers have forgiven me). I have never noticed this behavior when photographing this species, but I have only been close to a couple at their egg sacs over the years. Of course, now I want to test this next year and see for myself (with a clear piece of plastic rather than my eyes). I also want to see how much longer this female stays in this spot (she has been there almost 2 months at this point!). She will soon succumb to the freezing temperatures, but her young will overwinter, hidden in protected spots in the vegetation, and will repeat this amazing life story next year. Once again, I am amazed what I learn every time I wander outside and take the time to observe and ponder.