Fierce mama

Yesterday, we let Iliana play in a cardboard box. But before we could do that, we had to clear out the spiders that had rapidly colonized it first, and that’s how we caught this nice Parasteatoda. Last night, while we slept, she spun an egg case and laid a lot of eggs in it, and then today, I had to put her in a different container. She would not go. I tried every trick in the book to separate her from her egg case, and she would frantically scurry back up into the vial. Then I tried removing the egg case; no go. She had it tethered, and as soon as I got it away, thwip, she’d reel it back up. I had to give up and let her stay with her eggs. These spiders are extraordinarily maternal.

Nope, I’m not going to battle that to get her treasure. My party is going to have to level up a lot more.

We have a plethora of spiders now!

I’ve got one baby at home, and today when I came in to the lab we found even more babies…cute little spider babies. It seems this was the weekend almost everyone decided it was time to emerge from the egg sac, and seven egg sacs spewed out clouds of spiderlings.

This is a little overwhelming. I spent a few hours separating out spiderlings and trying to spread out the masses to more containers.

Here is the maternity ward. See all those vials with foam plugs? Each one contains a female spider and one or more egg sacs. If you look closely, you can see lots of little dots, and that’s the cloud of new babies. That’s probably a thousand spiders you’re looking at.

Let’s zoom in a little on one of the vials.

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Maya’s experiment

I was not looking forward to today — we have these swarms of spiders hatching out, and we have to do something with them all. They’re in cramped little petri dishes, an entire clutch together, which is fine early on, since they naturally aggregate after first emerging from the egg sac, and then a few days later start ballooning and dispersing by wafting away on the wind. “Wafting away on the wind” isn’t a great strategy for maintaining a laboratory colony, though. Last year I would pluck them out one by one and put them in tiny individual containers, which is ridiculously labor intensive, and then feed them flies individually, even worse, and that wasn’t going to work at all with the numbers we’re dealing with. Especially since fall term starts way too soon, and students are going to be occupied with mere classes.

So my student Maya is doing a simple experiment to see the effects of population density on juvenile mortality. We didn’t put the spiderlings in individual containers, but in two different sizes of containers in different numbers. We opened up the petri dishes of spiderlings and counted out individuals into larger containers.

It was amusing and different. The spiders, as soon as the lid was off, saw freedom awaiting them and would put out a thread to start ballooning. We’d gently sweep in with a paintbrush and snag them, move the brush over their new container, and give a little shake — sometimes they’d oblige by neatly rappelling down, sometimes they’d jump off, sometimes they’d get obstinate and you’d have to dab the brush against the container to convince them to move. Meanwhile, while you were distracted, more spiderlings were launching themselves skyward. More than a few escaped. More than a few, I’m sure, snugged themselves down in our clothing. It’s all good.

(Oops, just found one in my shirt sleeve. Now my office has some new residents.)

The end result is that we now have a known number of spiders in known volumes of space. We’ll track survival every few days to see how they fare. Once they get larger, we’ll spread them out a little more, but currently we find that the adults coexist nicely with two in a 5.7L container, so we’re hoping that the babies won’t fight and cannibalize each other at a somewhat higher density.

(Just found another baby under my shirt collar.)

It’s the Spider Purge!

Oh, no. My daughter and granddaughter are coming to visit for a week on Friday, and my wife has decided we have to make a more baby-friendly home. Which means…THE SPIDERS MUST GO. I tell her that the spiders were here first, so maybe it’s the baby who should make accommodations. That didn’t work. The baby will need to learn to love spiders eventually, so why not start early? No go. Maybe the baby would like to learn spider-catching technique, so you’re depriving her of a learning opportunity. Nope. So Mary’s been out in the sun room, destroying a happy, loving community by scooping up spiders and their many egg sacs, and has brought them to me. At least I’ve got a nice home for them in the lab.

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A successful Skeptiprom

Neglected spaces are neat. The hotel I’m at is not neglected, so it’s kind of barren of spiders…except that there’s one unused space deep in the bowels of the building, which used to be a sports bar, and there’s a back side of that that has been totally ignored for at least a year, and the cobwebs are dense and beautiful, so I got to spend a little time poking around with my arthropod friends, rather than sitting awkwardly in a corner nursing a drink and wallowing in self-loathing as I usually do at social events. See, there’s hope for us nerds someday!

I found a date for Skeptiprom!

I usually skip this event at Skepticon, the Skeptiprom. I’m kind of a wallflower, and I don’t dance, but this year, I have a reason to go.

It was a good day. I did my usual spiderwalk, and found that the outside of the federal building (yes, I got stopped by the police again) was populated with these furrowed orb weavers everywhere. I caught a few, they were impressive.

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St Louis got spiders!

I am so relieved. If they didn’t, this trip to Skepticon would have been a total waste of time.

I knew there would be, of course. Although, I took a stroll around the hotel, and it was a wasteland — it looked like the exterior had been hosed down recently, and even the few cobwebs I found were sad tattered shreds. Then I discovered the federal building behind us, and man, the windows there are dense with webs. I saw big ol’ orb weavers hanging out in massive webs that covered an entire picture window pane, and lots of my little pals, Parasteatoda, lurking in the corners. I caught a few, like the male above, that I’ll take home to start a Missouri colony. I’ll go back later and get some more.

One downside is that if you’re hanging about a federal building with a big camera with a long lens, and you keep peering at windows, I guess you look a bit suspicious. A policeman stopped by to ask, “Uh, what are you doing?” I told him, and he watched as I scooped up one in a vial, so I think he believed me. Also, it helps to look like an old white nerd (it shouldn’t, but it does. I also don’t have a Russian accent.)

Oh, and hey, the Skepticon conference starts this afternoon — the young people who organize it apparently don’t believe in getting up before 11am, so you’ve got plenty of time to get down here. Sure, go ahead, you’ve got time to look for spiders before the events start up.