Monday, August 11, 2014

Carolina Wolf Spider rediscovered!

Your narrator wrestles with two savages that collectively outweigh him, and that's saying something! This pair of St. Bernards are named Chloe and Lula, and they're a barrel of laughs. Nothing like a 130 lb. dog that thinks she's a puppy and deserves to jump in your lap. And two of them means double the fun!

The dogs belong to John Howard, a familiar name to regular readers of this blog and students of the natural sciences statewide and beyond. John lives in Adams County, smack in the middle of some of the richest biodiversity east of the Mississippi River. There is nowhere in this great state that I'd rather go, partly because the prospects of incredible new finds, whether they be plant or animal, always loom large. And on this trip, we scored big.

I'm bookended by two of the best, most well-rounded naturalists that I know, David and Laura Hughes. The three of us joined with John last Saturday to investigate some interesting Adams County habitats. First, we had to get out of John's "yard" and that took a while. We found lots of cool stuff there, and Laura and David brought some very interesting animals that required lots of photographing. I'll hope to share some of that stuff in the future.

 David served as my counselor/therapist when I was trying to decide whether to acquire Canon's remarkable (and costly) MP-E 65 macro lens. It's a very niche lens, but if you're into macro and shoot Canon, it'll eventually be a must-have piece of hardware. Dave already had one, and after a lengthy talk with him I pulled the trigger and got one. We're holding our macro rigs in this shot, and made good use of them on this day. Laura, by the way, is holding a spectacular female Hercules Beetle, Dynastes tityus.

Our destination was a prairie barrens not dissimilar to the one in this photo. Such habitats are full of biodiversity, often including many rare (sometimes VERY rare) species.

David and Laura work a borescope, while John kneels at the ready with his camera. A borescope is a highly specialized instrument that sports a long flexible tube with an amazingly good camera at the tip. One can thread the tube into nearly any nook or cranny, and built-in lights illuminate whatever lurks within. The operator controls the camera - which shoots stills or video - from the box that Laura is holding. Only the most serious of explorers of the natural world have such a tool, but that's Dave and Laura.

We'll stick the borescope in anything that looks interesting, but in this prairie we had a specific target in mind. Missouri Wolf Spiders, Geolycosa missouriensis.These big spiders create round burrows in the ground, and hole up in the depths during the day. At night, they come to the entrance and dash out to kill any unfortunate victim that bumbles too close. Most of the burrows that we inspected had a spider in residence, and it is really cool to see them come into view as the camera snakes its way into the inky depths of the burrow.

After a bit, we came across a burrow that was HUGE - three times the diameter of those of the Missouri Wolf Spiders. Excitement reigned, as we had some idea as to what the occupant might be. The camera was quickly readied and plumbed down the hole, and you can see the result on the borescope's screen.

Yes! We knew we weren't looking at a Missouri Wolf Spider; this thing was significantly larger and quite grayish. Laura popped off many photos and a lot of video of the animal as it glared at the camera. By now, we were relatively certain that we had made an exceptional find.

Eventually the jumbo spider got ticked off by the intrusive tube, and began to lunge at it. Laura played it like a cat lured by a string, and slowly teased the spider to the burrow entrance. This photo shows the spider at the burrow's mouth. Note its impressive orange chelicerae, or fangs. The tube is the borescope, and that burrow is big enough to stick your thumb in and not touch the sides. A penny provides scale.

We had rediscovered the Carolina Wolf Spider, Hogna carolinensis, which had not been seen in Ohio for over 60 years. At one time, going back nearly a century, this was considered a common wolf spider in Ohio. Spider expert Richard Bradley (CLICK HERE to see his excellent new book) believes that it could not cope with intensive agriculture and other habitat alterations, and thus disappeared from much of its former range.

The spider eventually came completely out of the hole and allowed us to view it in all of its gigantic splendor. According to Rich Bradley, this is a male, and possibly not a fully mature individual. Carolina Wolf Spiders can live for several years. Just imagine, the females are significantly larger!

We called Richard Bradley that night, and quickly sent him photos for confirmation. We're grateful for his comments about this species, and for confirming the identification. Our find was made at the end of the day, and thus we ran out of daylight before we could scour the prairie for additional spider burrows. There must be others, and you can believe searches will be organized before long.

Chance favors the prepared mind, and even though rediscovering this spider was not even on our minds, all of the necessary ingredients were present. Rich had educated us all in year's past about the Carolina Wolf Spider, and what its burrows looked like. John and I had sought it before in places that we thought looked good, but obviously with no luck. However, as soon as we saw the burrow we thought about this spider. Without the Hughes' borescope, it wouldn't have been possible to confirm the spider without a serious intrusion on the animal that involved shovels, and we wouldn't have wanted to do that.

Many of you who read this - if you made it this far! - will wonder why it isn't a GOOD thing that this spider went missing. To me it is fantastic to know that the largest wolf spider in North America lives on in Ohio. It is a high-end predator and such animals often serve as excellent early warning systems when things go awry with the environment. This Carolina Wolf Spider, and I suspect any others that we discover, live in some of the rarest and most interesting habitats in the Midwest. Within feet of the spider's burrow were several state-listed rare plants, and the general area is loaded with rare species. The spider is one of them, and an integral part of the relict prairie in which it occurs. I'm very glad that this site is owned and protected as a preserve by the Cincinnati Museum and The Nature Conservancy. Most of our prairies were not protected, and that's why many cool animals such as the Carolina Wolf Spider have become critically endangered in Ohio, along with a raft of plants.

Video by David and Laura Hughes

Click on the video to see actual footage shot through the borescope before we teased the spider out. Ignore our excited chatter. We were already discussing how to get our evidence to Rich for confirmation.


Anonymous said...

Pretty exciting, we've seen several "non Carolina" wolf spiders along the bank while canoeing this year. We're always amazed by their size.

Anonymous said...

I was excited to read about the wolf spider as I had three large spiders in my shed. They reminded me of the non-native cane spider in Hawaii. The size of a tarantula, except the body in much, much smaller. Unfortunately, it appears that the Wolf spider is not quite big enough, as I would estimate the spider was the size of two licenses, back to back. Any comments? I look if I took a picture with my cell phone.

Joe Berecek said...

Hi Jim! I used to own a house on a 6 acre wooded lot in Minerva, Ohio. Soon after I moved in (1991), I started seeing these huge tarantula size spiders in the woods. They were orange and grey and hairy, and huge!! No one in my family believed me until they saw one themselves. It was confirmed to be a wolf spider. They were pretty visible for a few years, then completely disappeared from my land.. Never saw any again. What surprized me is how they could jump up about 12" off the ground..

Joe Berecek said...

I used to live in a home on 6 wooded acres in Minerva, Ohio. One day in 1991, i spotted a huge, Tarantula sized spider, brown & grey, in my woods!! The body was as big as quarter and overall was 3-4" diameter!! Freaked me out!! Then I started to see more of them!! No one believed me until my family finally saw one!! Needless to say, everyone was afraid to take hikes in the woods!! They were confirmed to be Wolf Spiders.. Sightings continued for about a year, then never saw one again to this day. They just disappeared!