When we’re distracted, we are still paying attention—just not to the task that was the previous still point of our intentional neural processing.
I’m afraid I have a long history of being “distracted” by the natural world. I remember a time as a young teenager when I was helping my father nail shingles on the roof of our soon-to-be new home in Stafford County, Virginia. The property was on a freshwater tidal tributary to the Potomac River and was set in a forested landscape with large trees. It was spring, and warblers were moving through the trees, and now I was up at eye level with them. My Dad noticed a lack of hammering in my direction and looked over to see me trying to figure out what bird that was without my binoculars. I believe there was some quote like, quit watching them $%$^ birds and get back to nailing. Years later, when I started work as a naturalist for NC State Parks, he remarked how he was amazed I was actually being paid to watch birds (a bit of an oversimplification, but, yes, I did get to observe all sorts of nature on my job).
In retirement, I’m not sure I can really call it being distracted. In fact, maybe the tasks and chores I do are the actual distractions and the nature observation is my primary duty. Well, a couple of days ago I was on task to weed eat some of the dreaded invasive, Microstegium, along the roadside outside our deer fence. I try to cut it a few times every year as it nears seed set to reduce the amount of seed released back onto the landscape. I had finished one patch and was walking up toward another. Just as I revved the motor, I was “distracted” by a slight movement on the ground. I stopped and stared, but saw nothing at first. Then, a tiny movement and something pushing under a piece of dead leaf on the ground. I leaned in and was surprised to see this staring up at me.
It was a large wolf spider retreating into a burrow. I couldn’t tell which species for sure, but it reminded me of common one in this area, the Rabid Wolf Spider, Rabidosa rabida. The unfortunate name comes from their quick and somewhat erratic movements, not that are carrying rabies. As I watched, I saw something move just outside the burrow. It was tiny spiderling that crawled toward the large spider and then pulled itself onto her back. It had apparently been dislodged when she backed down into the hole. Many species of wolf spiders carry their egg sacs around attached to their spinnerets at the tip of the abdomen. When the young hatch, they cling to their mother’s back for a short while until they disperse and fend for themselves (usually after their first molt).
I sat still for several minutes and the large spider finally crept out of the hole and allowed me a closer look and the chance to grab a few photos. Now I could see the jumble of babies clinging to her. It looked a little like a pandemic hair style for spiders, but upon closer inspection, I could see a tangle of patterned bodies and legs. It’s hard to tell how many layers of spiderlings there are, but it appears there is likely more than one. Studies have shown that egg sacs for wolf spiders contain on average 200-300 eggs.
If you enlarge the image and start counting, you can easily imagine there being over 100 spider babies with what looks like more partially hidden underneath. This spider stagecoach is for the benefit of the young until they are a little more mobile. This group of spiders does not build a web to ensnare prey, but rather stalks and pounces on its victims, so carrying the young around for too long would undoubtedly be a hindrance to the adult spider.
One of my favorite nighttime activities is looking for spider eyes. You hold a flashlight on your forehead or nose and shine it out into the woods onto the ground. Wolf spiders (and other nocturnal non-web building spiders that depend more on eyesight for capturing their prey) have reflective chemicals in their eyes causing a tiny bit of light to be reflected back to your light (which is why you need to hold it near your eyes). This is similar to the phenomenon of eye-shine in nocturnal mammals like deer. It is a real treat when you find a mother spider like this one carrying her young as you get the reflection from multiple sets of eyes, giving the spider a sparkly look like a tiny jewel on the forest floor. Give it a try. Even if you don’t see a mama with her baby cargo, you’ll be amazed at how many spider eyes are out there!