A Prairie Project Report

by Eric Neubauer

In 2018, wheat was planted here at my property, where there was once blackland prairie. Since then, nature has taken over. A mix of native and non-native grasses and forbs quickly came up by themselves. Each year the mix changed, but by 2021 it was obvious Johnson Grass was a huge threat and would eventually outcompete and overwhelm everything else. I was reluctant to use herbicides, because they might affect the plants and animals that I wanted to keep. For example, it’s unlikely anyone tested the effect on wolf spiders. So, I was left with only mechanical means of control.

I decided to focus only on the Johnson Grass to keep it simple. I came up with several plans depending on how thick the Johnson Grass was and whether an area would be mowed. One image shows an area where I pulled the Johnson Grass and ragweed starting early in the year. It looks pretty nice now and only a few unwanted seedlings have come up since. I’ll mow this area in early spring before the bluestem comes up and after it goes to seed. You can see some Johnson Grass I haven’t gotten to lurking in the background on the right.

The other image shows where the mowed area meets the unmown area. Johnson Grass doesn’t like regular mowing. There are numerous small plants in the foreground, but these have limited root systems and will die or are easy to pull. King Ranch Bluestem tolerates regular mowing. I mowed around the plant in the foreground and now it’s going to seed. I mowed around other plants, primarily legumes, and hand pulled any Johnson Grass that didn’t get cut. In the background is a mass of Johnson Grass. I’m hand pulling this. You can see little of anything is left except leaf litter where I have pulled it to the right. Some will  regrows, and I’ll have pull it again, but subsequent pulling goes much quicker than the first. In the meantime, other plants, such as asters, now have enough light to spout and grow. By the way, if you hand pull Johnson Grass, wear good gloves. Otherwise it can give you a nasty cut if your hand slips.

Other areas I’ve promoted with selective weeding are stands of goldenrod and a large patch of frogfruit where water collects sometimes.

It’s possible another threat will rise out of the several species of non-native grasses present, but for now I have a plan.

Scientific Names for Spiders Are Handy

by Eric Neubauer

When we learned about scientific names in the training classes, we were introduced to how the name of the person that initially described them is often appended to the name. At the time, it seemed rather redundant.

As I found out recently, it can be very useful. I’ve been trying to untangle the lapidicina group of Pardosa wolf Spiders in Texas. These are the largest of the Pardosa spiders around here, and they like rocks, especially limestone outcrops. Their common name is stone spiders because of it.

I’m not aware of any in Milam County, but there are some at  Granger Lake just next door. There are also some along  Brushy Creek in Williamson County and several places along the lake near Belton in Bell County. In total, there are four species in Texas, which are apparently found in limited areas that don’t necessarily overlap.

Here’s one found near Granger Lake. It’s looking right at us!

Here’s what happened. P. sierra was described by Banks in 1898 from specimens collected in Baja California. P. atromedia (California) and sura were described subsequently. In 1959, Barnes decided they were all the same species, P. sierra, which had an immense range in southwestern U.S. and in Mexico. This was based on similar morphology of genitalia.

Then, in 2010, Correa-Ramirez et al. looked at the genetic code of specimens  and concluded that they were indeed separate species, and that  atromedia was in California, sierra was in Baja California, and sura was everywhere else. Additional studies may eventually add to these ranges, but for us it’s very likely that Texas has sura and not sierra. The other species in Texas are lapidicina, mercurialis, and vadosa. They are difficult to tell apart and all appear to come in a variety of colors and patterns.

Wolf Spider Identification

by Eric Neubauer

Although some wolf spiders are active year round, this is the time of year when they start to become more noticeable. Except for a few species that are relatively easy  to identify on sight, these can be very difficult to get down to species level. There are two main reasons. First, there a lot of genera and a lot more species. You are most likely to see are Rabidosa, Schizocosa, Pardosa, Hogna, and Tigrosa in our area which isn’t too overwhelming. However, the second and third of these include over two dozen species locally. The second reason is that most keys rely on microscopic details. There are macroscopic differences, but these haven’t been compiled in any comprehensive way. It may be some time before wolf spiders become as easy to identify as birds or butterflies, but I believe it will happen.

Unidentified juvenile Hogna. More on this one below.

Where to find them: wolf spiders live in diverse habitats. Margins of mowed areas, shorelines, road edges, and leaf litter are good places to look. They are noticeable because they run around in the open looking for prey. They they like to be where there is a way to escape whether it’s into tall grass, under leaves or onto the water’s surface. Many live in colonies, so if you find one, you can probably find more. I find the best time to look is when the temperature is above 70 and humidity is high. On sunny calm days, you can find them active at lower temperatures because the ground warms before the air. And, they aren’t always large. There are some species that have a body length of 0.15” or 4 mm when mature. Males tend to be smaller and a bit more lively than females, and they are harder to catch. As far as I know, none of the local wolf spiders have a dangerous bite, and they won’t bite without a lot of  provocation.

Rabid wolf spider Rabidosa rabida in a clear container

How to photograph them: good photos are important if you hope to make a species ID. Wolf spiders can usually be encouraged to run into an open container. Wolf spiders can jump, but do so more in a horizontal than vertical direction. They can climb, but not as well as other spiders. They will remain in the container until you get some good photos. Size is important, so if the bottom of the container has markings, you use them to scale the body length. Ventral views are important too. Looking up though the bottom of a clear container works. Others put the spider in a plastic bag so it can be flipped over. I try to release spiders close to where I found them when I’m finished with them. If you do all this, you might just have the clue that points to the species.

Unidentified Hogna, from the bottom (Hogna incognita)

Study populations, not individuals: Once you find a colony of spiders, visit it often and make a full collection of photos including males, females, females with egg sacs, females covered with spiderlings, and juveniles. Most experts wouldn’t dare identify a juvenile from a photograph at present. They do look a little different than the adults. However, from my experience working with two species, the juveniles are not only distinctive, but are more consistently patterned than the adults which will have developed some individual “character” in their appearance. In the future, the juveniles may provide the necessary clue for the species of an entire colony.

Thin legged wolf spider, genus Pardosa, with egg sac

Legs: I’ve noticed wolf spiders missing legs. Usually it’s one or two, but I have seen as many as four missing. Males are more likely to be missing legs than females. Legs can regrow, so you may notice a leg that doesn’t look like the others.

Pardosa male missing two legs, with a third that doesn’t look too good.

Recent Observation Notes from Bird and Bee Farm Trip

I continue to be surprised how finely placed the populations of wolf spiders are. At the pond dam, I found a couple of juveniles near the highest point. The first was one of my Hogna incognita (undescribed species). The other was Rabidosa rabida which seems to be species that appears everywhere in small numbers rather than being clustered in populations except perhaps around buildings. I found no more spiders until I got to the boat ramp at the far end of the dam. That’s where all the Pardosa were. The Pardosa may be all one species which would be good since most places I see them there appear to be multiple species that I haven’t been able to sort out.

I stopped at the Little River bridge north of Gause and found no spiders there. Then, I checked out the San Gabriel bridge on CR 487 east of Crossroads, which has an inspection road around and under the bridge. A bunch of spiders were in a pile of leaves that someone had dumped. I’d thought they were Pardosa at the time, but a closer look at the photos suggest Schizocosa juveniles. So, I found all four of the most prevalent genera in Milam County on my tour.

The H. incognita find was of interest. Although it seems to be mostly a Blackland species, this personally confirms it is present elsewhere, which I already figured would be true from other people’s observations. Nevertheless, its range may stop abruptly at the Brazos River. I’ll be testing that out in the next few months when they are active.

Here are some more wolf spiders to practice on. All photos by Eric Neubauer.

The Great Escape: A Bioblitz Tale

by Eric Neubauer

Way back when TMN training was beginning, I heard Alan Rudd’s stories about little grasshoppers that jumped into the water to eat algae or escape with interest. Over the next year I encountered pygmy grasshoppers in just three places, locations including Taylor Park on Granger Lake on Day 1 of the Bioblitz.

On Day 3 I encountered some again, this time at Alan Rudd’s place, where I had seen some in the fall. It seems they remain active through winter in very sheltered areas. Unbelievably I ended up with a mating pair sitting on my finger, something that isn’t likely to ever happen to me again.

Give us some privacy!

How did this happen? I saw one sitting near the water and tried to scoop in up in a container I had along for photographing Pardosa spiders. Of course, being a grasshopper it immediately jumped out as I expected, but landed upside down in wet mud, and I could see her tiny feet waving around in the air. So I offered her my finger, which she grabbed onto and was happy enough to sit there while I took as many photos as I wanted.

As I started taking photos, I realized there was more than just mud stuck to her. Eventually I realized it was an entire male grasshopper. When I finished with the camera, I put the grasshoppers back where they came from.

A little later I thought I saw a grasshopper jump into the water and burrow in the mud. I wasn’t sure, because little frogs were doing exactly the same thing to avoid me. I took a photo, and sure enough it was a grasshopper, proving that Alan hadn’t been exaggerating.

Something in the mud

Whoops! After carefully looking at the supposed Paratettix hiding in the mud, I believe it is actually a frog, Acris blanchardi, so my underwater photo of Paratettix hasn’t happened yet. You’d think it hard not to be able to tell a grasshopper from a frog, but there you go. I’ve deleted the observation and resubmitted under Acris.

Acris blanchardi, not in the mud.

Linda Jo commented that this isn’t the first time such a mis-identification has occurred!

Spider Bonanza

by Eric Neubauer

If you’ve searched Texas spiders on iNaturalist lately, you’ll probably found a tremendous increase in species. This is largely due to Justin Williams (jgw_atx) in Austin, who has done a lot of work on it lately. I searched Lycosidae (wolf spiders) yesterday and there were 402 species.

I’m sharing this information in the blog, since it makes iNat a lot more useful for spider identification in Texas. This kind of community science is what makes us Master Naturalists happy, and shows how much our own work can contribute to the knowledge of the natural world.

Here are a few pictures from Justin. Click on them to see them full size. They are gorgeous. They have Creative Commons copyright.

By the way, I also got a new and interesting spider observation! This is the first time Zora pumila has been observed in Texas, according to Justin Williams. The discussion on my observation is quite interesting.

Zora pumila observed by Eric Neubauer on January 12, 2021