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Cryptoinsect: Wide Web

(For our first official cryptoinsect, arachnophobes may wish to leave the cantina.)

All right, some of you have been clamoring for insects. I am nothing if not (occasionally) obliging. Besides, I developed a brand-new love for insects when I got the camera with the good macro mode. Things I used to dodge with a shudder, I now stalk, crooning things like “whose-a-good-bug-then?” and “you’re-beautiful-yes-you-are” as I shove the lens in their bizarre little faces. I’m happy to report that, despite provocation, nobody has stung, bitten or otherwise maimed me yet.

One problem remains: I’m a geologist, not an entomologist. So the vast majority of the time, I have no idea what I’m looking at. I know its broad category: bee, ant, caterpillar… But as to species, no clue. Feeding habits, mating strategies, fun factoids, and other interesting tidbits are right out of reach. So I don’t post the results of my macrobug mania very often. I hate doing the “I have no idea what it is, but it sure is purty!” thing.

Yet some among you occasionally mention an interest in insects. Perhaps there are even those among you who can pontificate upon pollinators, burble about beetles, rhapsodize about roaches, and, generally, inform us about insects. And I can provide you the fodder. So why not?

Right. Allow me to set the scene for you: it’s a fine late summer afternoon in the North Cascades. There’s a wonderful trail along Highway 2 called the Iron Goat Trail that takes you along some quite interesting remains of the old railroad that ran through it about 100 years ago. We’ve just done a nice amble along the concrete wall of the old snowshed (which has some fascinating and unexpected geologic features I shall be awing you with in the future). And we’re on the way back when the sunshine breaks through the trees and gleams from a gargantuan support thread that seems the size of a guy wire.

So we stop, backtrack a few steps, and look for the spider responsible. We soon find this gray-brown guy perched in the center of a maclargehuge web.

Cryptoinsect I

It’s the size of a very plump Rainier Cherry – fairly stout by local spider standards. It’s hanging about at eye level, between the two widely-spaced trees it’s using as supports. And there’s nothing between us and the spider.

What else can you do when you have a camera with a great macro mode, an eye-level spider, and no obstructions but step up, shove the camera in its face, and snap away?

Cryptoinsect II

Saying to the very large spider all the while, “Please don’t bite me.” Which, happily, it didn’t. It didn’t even seem fussed by a camera getting thrust into all eight eyes.

Cryptoinsect III

So, it obviously doesn’t eat people. Any ideas which PNW spiders are gray-brown, weave enormous waves, and enjoy posing for photo ops?

Comments

  1. Adrian says

    It’s some species of orb web, I think. There are too many spider species to do a quick Google on them.

    If you think that’s big look up Nephila spiders, they are huge and hang over tracks just like this one.

  2. Andrew G. says

    Going by that cross marking on the back, maybe a female European Cross Spider (Araneus diadematus)?

    Individuals vary in colour from yellow-orange to grey-brown, but the cross pattern and banded legs seems consistent. The spider has a wide range despite its name, including much of the US including the PNW, and is very common. (In fact there’s one rebuilding its orb outside my kitchen window right now; it’s been there a week or two.)

  3. says

    I can support the opinion of Andrew G., it seems to be a female Araneus
    diadematus
    . A picture of one in my garden is here (the pray was not identifiable anymore. probably some kind of a fly). It is the most common orb-making spider found in my area (western Germany, Lower-Rhine).

  4. Trebuchet says

    Urrgh! You’ve just reminded me of the huge arachnid I almost stepped on getting into the shower this morning. Now I’m creeped out all over again.

    Your spider at least is in a much preferable habitat to mine, which now dwells in the septic tank.

    The trail, by the way, was the site of one of the worst rail disasters in US history.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wellington,_Washington_avalanche

  5. Eike Wulfmeyer says

    Yep, it’s an Araneus. Probably diadematus; might be quadratus (if the legs hide another set of lateral white spots) but not likely. Females this size are not uncommon this time of year in the temperate Holarctic; just met such a nice specimen few days ago (same region as Christoph).

  6. Andrew G. says

    I’m no expert, but I see A. quadratus listed as Palearctic rather than Holarctic, so one wouldn’t expect to see it in the PNW?

  7. rowanvt says

    Also known as the English Garden Spider I believe. I’m down in the San Francisco bay area of Cali, and these guys first began appearing about 7 or 8 years ago now. :D Our versions are bright orange/red!

  8. says

    I’m late to the party, but I have to comment; I love these Cross spiders! Ours, in the Lower Fraser Valley, are anywhere from brown to orange, and at this time of year, we see lots of fat females.

    With a great head shot like this, its gender is easy to recognize. The pedipalps, those hairy little leg-like things in front of the mouth, (they’re not fangs; the fangs are barely visible behind them) are pointed. The mature male has big boxing gloves at the tip; this is where he carries the drop of sperm he is hoping to donate to a female.

  9. rq says

    Being away for the weekend, I’m always anxious to see what I’ve missed on the blog. I saw the title ‘Cryptoinsect’ and thought – hooray!! And then you post a spider. :(
    An impressive one, but still a spider. At least I don’t have to go poking around trying to identify it. :) Not a fan. Of them arachnids, that is. I think I read The Hobbit at too tender an age.

    But, your photo skillz are impressive! I’ve tried to take pictures of spiderwebs, and I was successful once, and have since lost the patience trying to manually-focus onto those delicate threads (also the camera is still broken, but – beside the point); the auto-focus can’t seem to get a grip on the proper plane. So, seeing these close-ups – very impressive! :)

  10. says

    It could be a European spider, with the military bases in the area. But it could very well be a lookalike. With insects, spiders, and even fish, species identification can be very tricky. I am not an arachnologist, but I did study aquatic insects as part of my stream ecology course load. I’m not an expert, but have had to sort thousands of individual insects by species. To make a firm ID, you need close up pictures of the top and underside, the mouth parts, and the leg tips, as well as any obvious features of interest. Some Plecoptera species look just like Ephemeroptera, for instance, and only by counting claws can you make sure you have the right one.

    Ideally, you would have the insect or spider corpse so you could get it under a microscope and take your time, but even in research I hated needing to kill black fly larvae, so I’m thinking just some close in pictures ought to suffice for the blogosphere fun fun happy time. But anyone interested in taking a bug to a specialist (home safety concerns, maybe, or in this case a possible invasive) can just drop it in rubbing alcohol and seal it up. The identifying features generally survive that way.