Hauntingly Beautiful

Tuesday afternoon I was joined by my good friend and mentor, Mary Ann,¬†for a walk at Umstead State Park. It was a great chance to catch up and spend some time doing what we both love to do, woods watching. It was a walk back in time for me in a couple of ways – reminiscing about some of the good times we had at the museum helping people get excited about nature, especially the small things that surround us; and reconnecting with the place that started me on my path as a naturalist/educator. My first job as a naturalist was a summer seasonal job at Umstead in 1981 in between grants in graduate school. At the end of that summer, I had fallen in love with sharing the natural world with people, and, as luck would have it, a permanent position came open. I applied and was accepted as the East District Naturalist for the NC State Park System, and so my incredibly satisfying career began. On this day, we did what folks like us do, slowly walking and looking closely at everything from autumn leaves and tree bark textures to slight movements or patterns that catch a naturalist’s eye. The Inspiration Trail provided us with just that, and a seasonally-themed experience as well – a look at some hauntingly beautiful woodland spiders.

Tan Jumping Spider dorsal view

Tan Jumping Spider on Loblolly Pine trunk (click on photos to enlarge)

Our first spider was hiding in plain sight on the trunk of a large Loblolly Pine. It was a very fuzzy-looking jumping spider. Using The Spiders of the Carolinas field guide by L.L. Gaddy, I identified it as a Flat Jumper, Platycryptus undatus. A visit to the BugGuide.net web site revealed that it is more commonly known as the Tan Jumping Spider.

Tan Jumping Spider

Tan Jumping Spider

This is a common species of jumping spider, which, like all of its cousins, builds no web, but instead relies on its’ keen eyesight and speed to capture prey. It favors vertical surfaces such as tree trunks, fences, walls, etc. It is easily observed as it tends to show no fear of humans, and may, in fact, be curious and jump onto a close hand or camera lens for a quick inspection. The bodies of these spiders are somewhat flattened in the vertical direction, which allows them to hide under loose tree bark and in other tight places. The prominent pattern on the dorsal surface of their abdomen is diagnostic of the species (the species name undatus refers to the undulating outline of the pattern). This coloration helps them blend in on mottled surfaces like bark.

Tan Jumping Spider close-up

Tan Jumping Spider close-up

A close look at this female shows the characteristic large pair of eyes in front and the dark single lashes above each of the other eyes. A male will have a reddish-orange stripe under the row of front eyes.

Magnolia Green Jumper on tree trunk

Magnolia Green Jumper on tree trunk

Next was a tiny specimen of one of my favorite jumping spiders, a Magnolia Green Jumper, Lyssomanes viridis. It is easily recognized by its two huge front eyes and the raised “eye mound” on top of the cephalothorax that is orange or yellow and contains the remaining eyes.

Young Nursery Web Spider

Young Nursery Web Spider

A little farther along the trail we came upon a young Nursery Web Spider, Pisaurina mira, posing on a leaf in its characteristic splayed-leg position. Females of this species lay an oval egg sac, pull some leaves over it, and secure the whole thing with some web. She then remains with the egg sac until the young spiderlings hatch and disperse in late autumn.

Marbled Orb Weaver at Umstead

Marbled Orbweaver

The final spider of the hike was the most seasonally appropriate – a beautiful female Marbled Orbweaver, Araneus marmoreus. This large-bodied spider is abundant in autumn and, due to its timing and coloration, is often dubbed the Halloween Spider (it often turns more orange late in the season). Although the abdomen is usually bright yellow or orange, it does occur in many other color variations. This one was out in the middle of its web feeding on a small prey item, but I usually find them hiding in a curled leaf retreat off to the side of their circular web. It is always fun to suddenly reveal them to folks on a nature walk by reaching up and tapping the spider’s hideaway and have it come scurrying out. Now if I could only get them to line the pathway up to the door for Halloween night, I might be able to save some of my chocolate treats…