Those Eyes

Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?

~Henry David Thoreau

On any woodland walk in the warm months, you will run into a variety of spider silk across your path. And so it was recently on a walk in our woods. It was mostly webs of small orb web weavers strung across the trail, but at one point I found myself staring at a spider dangling at eye level. I reached for it and realized the spider was no longer there, just its last set of clothes – a shed exoskeleton.
spider shed

Spider shed that was hanging by a thread along the trail (click photos to enlarge)

I am always fascinated by the remains of insect and spider sheds. The lighter-than-air remains cause them to dance in the slightest breeze, but the detail of their former inhabitants are so revealing and beautiful. In spiders, they have a pop-top shedding style so the cephalothorax is removed like a can lid so the “new” spider can pull itself out of the tangle of old leggings.

spider shed on moss

The eye coverings remain on the shed head seen on the left in photo

When I touched it for a closer look, the shed dropped to the ground and landed on a mossy rock. It looked as if the spider was ready to run off again, but with its head oddly trailing behind.

As we approached the house, I checked the small pawpaw patch out back and noticed something disappear under the broad leaves of a small sapling. I eased my hand under the leaf and a spider popped back out on the upper surface.

Magnolia green jumper male 2

Magnolia green jumper on pawpaw leaf

And what a spider it was! I have photographed the female of this species, a magnolia green jumper, but had never seen a male. They are characterized by the two huge eyes in front and their insanely long chelicerae.

Magnolia green jumper male under leaf

The magnolia green jumper under the leaf

This little guy was quite active and bold. I had to coax it out from under a leaf at first, but then it tended to move toward the camera and even jumped on the lens a few times. I would then ease it back onto a leaf and start the photography dance all over again.

Magnolia green jumper male eye arrangement

There are four rows of two eyes each, with the two in front being very large

Both sexes have a raised “eye mound” with 8 eyes surrounded by orange. These spiders can scan the area in front of them by moving the rear of their lens (the actual “eyeball” is fixed since it is built into the carapace). Because the rear of the lens is the darkest part of the eye and it moves around, you can often see a jumping spider’s eye changing color as in the photos below. When it is darkest, the spider is looking straight at you, because then you are looking down into its retina.


Magnolia green jumper male eye closeup 1

The retina sweeping side to side in the eye

This series of photos also shows the chelicerae (jaws) – the brownish orange appendages coming out beneath the eyes. Coming down on either side of those are the pedipalps (or palps).

Magnolia green jumper male eye closeup

One eye dark, one lighter

Pedipalps resemble small legs, but, in males, they serve a reproductive function.

Magnolia green jumper male eye closeup 2

Here’s looking at you…

The tips of male pedipalps are modified with small swellings (that look like small boxing gloves) that contain a complex copulatory organ. Males deposit sperm from under their abdomen into a small sperm web and the then suck it up into the palpal organ. When he finds a receptive female, he inserts the palpal organ into a slit on her abdomen and squeezes out the sperm. I suppose it is safer that way considering she might want to make a meal of him. Probably another reason to have a lot of eyes if you are a spider.


Hiking the Haw

A river is the most human and companionable of all inanimate things. It has a life, a character, a voice of its own, and is as full of good fellowship as a sugar maple is of sap.

~Henry Van Dyke

Haw River reflections 1

Autumn reflections along the Haw River (click photos to enlarge)

Fall color is starting to peak here in the Piedmont of North Carolina so I thought it would be a good time to hike along the nearby Haw River. The Haw is part of the Cape Fear River basin and the stretch that runs through this area is gorgeous, especially in early morning or late afternoon light. Last Friday, I got a ride down to the Hwy 64 bridge and hiked upriver a couple of miles to our neighborhood. I traveled light – the usual binoculars, a hiking pole to clear the path of spider webs, and my new Olympus Tough TG-4.

Haw River reflections

Haw River reflections

The early morning light accentuated the arboreal palette and made me wonder why I had waited so long to enjoy this beautiful hike. A few years ago, about 1000+ acres along both banks of this stretch of the Haw were acquired by the state as the Lower Haw River State Natural Area. The actual trail lies along a little over 4 miles of the east bank, from the Hwy 64 bridge to Bynum. For a couple of miles it runs along the boundary of our community, making for easy access to enjoy the sights and sounds of the river.

Haw River reflections 4

Morning sun peeking over the treetops in a reflecting pool along the Haw

The path is narrow, occasionally littered near its start by thoughtless bank fishermen, but you soon leave that and the road noise behind and are accompanied by the gurgling sounds of water over rocks.

Haw River reflections 3

The Haw has many moods, from quiet and reflective, to roaring and dangerous at high water

On this day, the river flowed gently over, and between, the many rocks that line its corridor.

Haw River reflections 2

The river level gave rise to many boulder-shrouded pools where waters were still

Evidence of recent high water is suspended in the shrubs and trees along the bank, but now I can step out into the river on the many exposed boulders that frame quiet pools. There still is enough flowing water to muffle many of the sounds of the forest along the trail, but I did hear the unmistakable chirping of a Bald Eagle at one point, before realizing it was perched in a tree right next to me. As I slowly eased toward the river bank, it flew across and perched in a large Sycamore, so I moved on, leaving it in peace. I saw a few other birds along the way, plus a lot of animal sign like Beaver chew marks and the tracks of Raccoon and White-tailed Deer. And, since it was a warm and sunny morning, there were plenty of insects and spiders out and about. A hatch of caddisflies was happening on the river, and several of these tent-winged insects landed on me as they began their aerial existence from what has been their aquatic home. I also encountered more than my share of spider webs strung across the trail (always a good sign that you are the first person to hike a trail that day). After scrambling up the bank at the main creek crossing along this section of trail (there are no bridges for the side creeks feeding into the Haw), I saw one of my favorite autumn arachnids.

Marbled Orb Weaver

Marbled Orb Weaver

Marbled Orbweavers, Araneus marmoreus, are large, brightly colored spiders, most often seen in late summer and fall. This one is a female, much larger than the males as is so often the case in the world of spiders. She was hiding in her daytime retreat, a curled leaf, off to the side of her large circular web. She pulls the leaf into a curl with silk and then hides in the safety of the retreat awaiting a signal from a struggling prey. She is able to feel their floundering via a strand of silk, a signal line, that runs from the center of the web to her hide.

Marbled Orb Weaver leaf retreat

The leaf retreat of another Marbled Orbweaver just a few feet away (look closely and you can see the spider inside)

Unfortunately, I had stumbled into her web as I climbed over a log, and pulled open her retreat. She posed for a few photos in the morning sun, and then I placed her back on the limb where some of her web remained. Just a few feet from that limb was another large web, and, sure enough, another spider hiding in a leaf retreat.

Marbled Orb Weaver 2

My spider had a glob of some sort of prey in her mouth parts that she continued to hold during the photo session

The colorful abdomens of these spiders tend to darken with age, so many appear bright orange by late October. This has given rise to another of their common names, the Halloween Spider.

Marbled Orb Weaver shadow

I caught her shadow on a branch below as she returned to her remaining web

Perhaps this species is one of the reasons spiders are often associated with this spooky holiday. Several scientists even started a spider awareness campaign on Twitter for the month of October to take advantage of this perceived connection – #Arachtober. They have some incredible photos and fascinating information about this too-often misunderstood group of invertebrates. In honor of their efforts and the important role that spiders play in our world, I will try to post a few more spider topics this week.