Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Encounter with a Black Widow!

Last Sunday, I headed off to Shawnee State Forest in southern Ohio to do some major exploring, and photography. This was a solo trip, which is a nice thing to do on occasion, as I can click off serious volleys with the camera without irking anyone.
 
As always happens on such forays, I found plenty of interest - more material than I'll ever get around to blogging, probably. But there were a few serendipitous standout finds, and the one that follows was the King of Finds on this day.
 
ALERT: This post does involve a spider, for you arachnophobes. But please, have no fear and read on anyway. Pictures don't bite, and this beast, beyond any shadow of a doubt, is one of the coolest looking spiders out there.
 
The Jetta perches at the entrance to a closed forest road deep within Shawnee. Quick sidebar on the car. This is the second Volkswagen Jetta TDI that I've had, and I want to briefly trumpet the virtues of this vehicle, especially as I suspect many people who read this blog are serious travelers. The TDI Jetta is diesel-powered, and gets phenomenal mileage. On this trip, which is about 100 miles one way, I averaged about 48 miles per gallon. Plus, the car runs at least as clean as a regular gasoline-powered vehicle, has oodles of torque, handles like a sports car, and is full of cool gimickry. Something to consider next time you're car shopping.

Anyway, our story unfolds on the steep bank just behind the car, and just past that yellow gate. I was wandering up the road, and right away saw a Bird's-foot Violet, Viola pedata, in flower. This most beautiful of our violets is running late this spring, and it was the only one that I saw in flower this day. I walked to the plant, and leaned down to clear some grasses from the field of view before making a photo. Just then, a medium-sized beetle buzzed by, and promptly became ensnared in a tangled jumble of spider webbing. I was sort of absently wondering whether the webmaster might be home, as I continued paying the violet some mind.

Suddenly - WOW! Out from the grasses, just a few feet away, waltzed a gorgeous Northern Black Widow, Latrodectes variolus. Needless to say, Viola pedata was quickly forgotten and I focused my attention - and camera - on this seldom seen animal.

The widow was just as cool as you'd ever hope to be. She didn't run wildly to the hapless victim, as some lesser spiders would. She just sort of strutted through the cobwebbing in her own sweet time, while I thanked my lucky stars that such a treat would land right in my lap.

Once she reached the beetle (at least I think it's a beetle; I don't recognize the species), Ms. Widow began the process of binding it with silken strands. By this time, the bug had ceased any struggles; in fact, it quit writhing about before the spider even arrived on the scene. I suspect it had a heart attack when it realized its fate.

By now, I had gingerly worked myself into a prostrate position only a few feet away, and the spider paid me no mind. Fortunately, the Canon already had the 100 mm macro lens bolted on, so I was good to go. In this shot, we're looking at the ventral side (bottom) of the spider. Note that the classic "hourglass" red markings are broken, or disconnected. Our other species, the Southern Black Widow, Latrodectes mactans, has the red markings connected and constricted in the center, and they really do form an hourglass shape. CLICK HERE to see photos of a Southern Black Widow that I encountered a few years back.

In general, these are apparently rather locally distributed spiders in Ohio, and largely confined to the southernmost reaches of the state. Widows probably are not particularly rare, but they're shy and retiring, and often hide in nooks and crannies where they won't be seen.

In this shot, we can see silken strands playing out from her spinnerets. Just aft of the spinnerets is a bright red dash that runs up her back, and the broken hourglass is in front of the spinnerets. Northern Black Widows are apparently often ornamented with red markings on the upper surface, while Southerns rarely are.

By now, she's got a fair bit of webbing around the victim, which is well on its way to mummification. I've said it before and I'll say it now: DO NOT return as an insect. Your fate is not likely to be a pleasant one.

Spiders are incredibly cool, and certainly must rank high among the world's most coordinated animals. Widows make an insensible and sometimes fairly extensive tangle web with no rhyme or reason to it. Yet the spider deftly navigates the webbing - which it laid down of course - while all other comers, if small enough, are quickly stuck fast. Getting up close, like we are in these shots, allows one to really watch the hyper-coordinated finesse with which the spider unravels silk from its spinnerets and routes it into position by using the tips of any of its eight legs.

Finally, after she felt her prey was adequately wrapped, the black widow tugged it through the webbing and to the mouth of her lair, which is that opening just behind her and to the right. She was hiding in there when the beetle hit the web, and its struggles spurred her to action. I happened to glance down just in time to see her emerge from her den, and that started this sequence of observations.

I am a firm believer in never killing something just because it scares you, or you think it somehow unworthy. Even black widows have their place, and they are a fascinating part of our biodiversity. But I'm always flopping to the ground to take photos or study something, and this encounter reminded me to take a more careful look before I go prostrate.

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14 comments:

jaredmizanin said...

As much as I think widows are awesome, I'm still glad they do not occur this far north. I'm always laying on the ground or flipping debris and this is one critter I don't have to worry about.

Awesome macro shots...that DSLR + lens is serving you well.

Jack and Brenda said...

What a great find and photos! I sort of hope that I never get a chance to photograph one!

Unknown said...

Hey, great find! As odd as it seems, the Northern Widow, just like the Southern Widow are both more common in southern Ohio. I've seen them at Shawnee State Forest too, really cool beast. These are great photos. What a prize that big beetle must be for the spider! She was set for a while with that meal!

Anonymous said...

On my first Shawnee adventure about ten years ago, I was out on a nice Columbus Day in October with some other naturalist types. We lifted lots of stone slabs on hillsides and got some nice photos of reptiles. Almost every rock we looked under that day had its resident Shelob. The red markings were definitely different from the widow you always hear about. I did a little research to figure out they were the variolus. Glad to hear we still have forests with a little drama and excitement left in them.
Brian

Anthony Rodgers said...

Your beetle (yes it is a beetle!) is in the family Scarabaeidae. For the record - if you'd ever like a beetle IDed from photos (I know that the beetle isn't the focus in this post, but for the future perhaps), the plain dorsal shot showing the elytra and pronotum is the key! Having said that, I'd make a relatively educated guess that the victim in your photos is Euphoria sp. or at least something closely related. Nice series!!

Jim McCormac said...

Thanks all, for your comments and friendly attitude towards spiders, and thank you Anthony for the beetle ID!

Lisa Sells said...

Incredible, Jim!

linda said...

jim, in the third photo, that beetle looks like a hairy old man with fuzzy eyebrows and a crazy beard! on my way to shawnee on thursday to do a few days of birding. hope i don't see either of these guys!

Rick from Licking said...

Had a college friend from Wheelersburg(back in the 70's)that said he had black widows at his place.Went there,sure enough out in the shed we found one. This is off the spider subject,but what will happen if eagles nest close to the western entrance to the boardwalk at Magee,we know it will happen soon,

Jim McCormac said...

Good question, Rick. I suppose it would depend on the circumstances, such as how close the nest is to the trail. Guess we'll cross that bridge when we come to it, if we come to it.

Rob Boales said...

I have seen the Northern Black Widow in North Central Ohio. I had one in my house which is located in Mansfield. I about freaked out because I was taking a shower and went to grab my towel and for some particular reason I decided to shake my towel and luckily I did because this little bugger fell out of the towel!

Anonymous said...

My son went to the garage to get the lawn mower when he looked down only to see a dead black widow. At first I didn't believe him, but when he brought it to the deck for closer examination, there was no doubt. We live out by Clay High School, so neighbors "Beware!" I am going out to the garage to inspect for more of these creatures. I hope I don't find any.
Joe

Anonymous said...

My son went to the garage to get the lawn mower when he looked down only to see a dead black widow. At first I didn't believe him, but when he brought it to the deck for closer examination, there was no doubt. We live out by Clay High School, so neighbors "Beware!" I am going out to the garage to inspect for more of these creatures. I hope I don't find any.
Joe

2 tweets from insanity said...

As a resident of southern Ohio, I must say that these are great pics but not rare. I unfortunately have many at my residence and it is a constant struggle to destroy them. They are everywhere outside the house I have alone destroyed 25-30 this spring.