Tuesday 4 September 2012

Dispersing Pholcus babies and the spider man

A few months back, I bought a tattered copy of the classic The World of Spiders, by W.S. Bristowe, the 38th book of the New Naturalist series. This book is a wonderful read and I recommend it to any spider enthusiast. Bristowe was in awe of spiders from an early age. He describes being greatly puzzled -  when he was able to read -  and after devouring any spider book he could get hold off, that
the great experts seemed to leave off where I wanted to begin. They had described with precision the appearence of the corpses, in words often unfamiliar to me, and had left to other people the task of writing about their habits
His book does not disappoint as he went on to describe the behaviour of many familiar and unfamiliar spiders with their own observations, displaying the author's never ending curiosity for the world of spiders. The book has photos (black and white and colour) and astonishingly beautiful line drawings by Arthur Smith, often portraying his subjects going about their business and demonstrating an incredible attention to detail. Bristowe describes his first meeting with Smith in the preface of the book:
he ended the afternoon perched on a table with a torch under one armpit whilst he busied himself with pencil and paper sketching a Pholcus on the ceiling.
Bristowe seemed to have a particular fascination with Pholcus phalangioides, the daddy long legs spider.
Pholcus did not live in my childhood home at Stoke d'Abernon, Surrey, although she thrived elsewhere only about ten miles further, so the quest of an explanation inspired me to trace her distribution. This had to await the acquisition of a motor-bycicle and then, with the impudence of youth, I zigg-zagged across England ostensibly seeking rooms in hotels or lodgings whose ceilings I viewed with nonchalant interest. My apologies are no doubt due to a host of hoteliers for gaining entry under false pretences...
 On the 23rd of August I noticed that the eggs from an egg sac a Pholcus phalangiodes female in the toilet had been holding had hatched. She was still holding the empty egg sac (above), and twenty-two  spiderlings hung still, upside down around her. In Bristowe's words:
The eggs may hatch in two or three weeks' time and the young then hang motionless like washing on clothes-lines for the next week or fortnight during which time they take no notice of any disturbance such as those caused by their mother catching an insect. Unlike nearly all other spiders, they do not molt until after they have emerged from the egg-sac.
  Directly they have recovered from this first molt they gradually begin to migrate, taking positions further and further along the wall and spacing themselves as though they had staked their claims to particular territories. Now they are interested in food and for several of them their first meal is of a brother or sister who is backward in his timetable of who dies or is injured as a result of the delicate operation of moulting.
A couple of days ago the spiderlings moulted and today, at the tender age of 12 days, some more adventurous spiderlings have started to explore and disperse away from their mother, their old skins hanging like ghostly gloves from the invisible web.

More information
Bristowe, W.S. 1958. The World of Spiders. The New Naturalist. Collins, 304 pp.

1 comment:

Neil said...

Great stuff. I think i ahve a copy of that book. I must finish reading it!