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.

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

Flying Spiders and Other Arachnid Tales

by Eric Neubauer

Flying Spiders

A while back a friend directed me to an article suggesting that spiders use the electrical gradient in the atmosphere to become airborne. When they produce silk, it has a charge and is attracted upward. Enough silk, and they’re up and away. So, the thing that causes lightning can also be used by spiders to fly.

Sometimes the webs get caught on fencing. Image by @Donatellaloiphoto via Twenty20

After I read the article, I’ve wanted to see a flying spider. Yesterday, I was lucky and saw one go by at about 5 mph and 6 feet above the ground. I saw the spider, one of my guests saw the silk thread it was suspended by. Unfortunately it went by too quickly for either of us to  see what was at the other end of the thread.

Whether it is pure instinct or involves some thought, the spider is purposefully flying. By dropping down on the thread, the spider can land at will. I have seen what I take to be silken spider balloons lying on plants.

I’ve also wondered how those silken threads that span the tall grass on either side of the driveway got there. It would be tedious for the spider to go down, across, and up while risking the thread getting entangled along the way. They probably simply fly it across. I’ll be looking for more flying spiders.

Additional information from Sue Ann

I’m busting in on Eric’s article, because this is also one of my interests. I found on Wikipedia that this is called ballooning. Apparently lots of spiders and some other organisms do this, and yes, it’s electrical!

I’ve also read that the wolf spiderlings are blown out of their nests on these little parachutes of silk, which is how they disperse. Here’s a close-up I found. At some times of the year at our ranch, they are everywhere. I can remember getting covered by the sailing webs while driving in our utility vehicle.

From Sue Ann: this is a photo we have framed and hung on the wall. Our dog, Penney, was running through the field at sunset during the time all the spider babies are flying off. The sun is reflecting off the webs.

Are spiders disgusted by humans?

As the season winds down and the avian predators clean up the last of the grasshoppers, the mating season of Eastern Harvestmen (and women) is in full swing. Perhaps because of this they seem to be very curious.

Have you ever seen a daddy longlegs this close up? Wow! Photo by Eric.

Twice I’ve had them come to investigate while I was fussing around with something. Rabid Wolf Spiders also do this, but I figured in their case they were hoping for a meal like the swallows that appear when you’re out on a lawn tractor.

The funny thing was when I stuck my finger out to see what the Harvestmen would do with it, they turned tail and ran away immediately upon contact. It seemed as if they had the same gut reaction that some people have when they see a spider. It also suggests they have really poor eyesight and are probably as comfortable in total darkness as they are in light.

This is apparently a harvestman and a harvestwoman. (ha ha)

I later had another encounter with a harvestman. I kept my finger still as it approached. As soon as its leading foot touched me, it turned and ran. Primatephobia at its  best!

Amazing Things in Nature

by Eric Neubauer

Finding a funnel web a couple of feet off the ground is unusual, and more so when it uses a knot hole as a focal point. This shows nearly as much “intelligence” and behavioral flexibility as using something in the environment as a tool.

Funnel weaver nests are usually on the ground, above a hole

So, where does that “intelligence” reside? I can see two main conclusions: First that intelligence is no big deal after all, and second that intelligence must reside outside the physical being. However it seems logical that the expression of “intelligence” would be subject to the limitations of the physical being.

Here you see the spider peeking out of the knothole it’s used for a “hole.”

As far as intelligence residing outside the physical being, one of the unique characteristics of life is its ability to act with purpose which is something that lies outside of the laws of physics anyway.

Don’t Bite My Head Off

by Donna Lewis

Earlier this week, I happened to be checking my Martin House poles when I thought I saw something in the netting  around the poles.  I looked closer and there was a female Mantid (Praying Mantis) who had gotten tangled in the netting.

It took me an hour to get her out unharmed.  As soon as she was free she flew onto my arm and proceeded to climb up till she was on my shoulder.  She looked at me with her triangular shaped head and turned her head back and forth.  Kinda neat and creepy at the same time.  I guess we were bonding…

Ms. Mantid

Mantids are a sit-and-wait predator. The females are larger than the males. It is rumored that sometimes if a second male comes near her during mating, well, she just eats the first guy by biting his head off. Maybe that’s where that saying comes from?

They mostly eat other insects or small lizards. They do call to attract a mate, but otherwise are silent. 

She was interesting to say the least, and I guess she was thanking me for saving her, because when she finally flew down to the grass, she started following me.

I finally out-distanced her and everyone went home.

This is a bonus photo of a green lynx spider Donna saw. It’s messing with a butterfly.

Nature is everywhere.  You just have to look.