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Spinning Their Spell
Tiny spiders, so easy to overlook, draw a photographer and a writer to a coastal marsh in Maine.

 

The saltmarsh flanks a tidal creek that meanders in a deep trench toward the sea. Later in summer this marsh near my home in eastern Maine will vibrate with the rich yellow blossoms of seaside goldenrod and the darting flight of dragonflies. But on a cloudy morning in July there are other, less obvious natural treasures to be found.

I have always been drawn to wet places. Looking for birds—egrets, sandpipers, geese, loons—I got used to soaked feet and the smell of damp rot as I pushed into swamps or shoreline grasses. Then, as time passed, I began to feel an intense curiosity about the leaves and blossoms, and the minikin animal life fluttering or scurrying in the foliage, making up the essence of those watery landscapes around me. I wanted to know the names, and something about the lives, of the aquatic plants, insects, and spiders that were also vital members of the habitats I scoured for birds.

And so I encountered, close-up, an order of animals whose reputation already touched my imagination, though we hadn’t been formally introduced. Spiders compose an outcast race, the age-old object of human innuendo and reprehension. Yet in their company I set out on an adventure that has enlightened and entertained me and brought me a group of amiable friends who share my interest. They’ve also given me a tangible basis to study the history of life on our planet.

I am fortunate this morning to have Piotr Naskrecki as my companion in the marsh. Celebrated for the photographs of tiny animals in his 2005 book, The Smaller Majority, the Polish-born photographer is also an accomplished scientist who works at Harvard University in the Museum of Comparative Zoology. His eye for the minuscule in nature detects spiders camouflaged deep in the rocks and foliage around us, while his hand captures in an instant their uniqueness and beauty on camera.

It’s easy to underestimate the presence of spiders in the marsh. Many of the long, stout blades of the grasses about me are bent back on themselves, knotted to produce a three-cornered bulge: I pry open the bulge, and wrapped in silk inside is a veritable nursery—a sac spider surrounded by her spiderlings and a few still-unopened eggs. I spot a bumblebee on a blossom, though there’s something odd about her. She is uncannily still, listing heavily to one side. Then I notice, just below and much smaller than the bee, a bright yellow crab spider, its color matching that of the blossom, holding the bee in a deadly embrace. On the ledges where marsh grades into woodland, an orbweaving cave spider has climbed from a crevice and pauses in what, for this spider, is a brief moment in the light.

They may be the most abundant and significant terrestrial predators on earth. Only in recent years have scientists begun to unravel many of the conundrums of anatomy and behavior revealed by these remarkable eight-legged little chemical factories. Except for those in one small family, they inject venom through tiny openings in their fangs to subdue prey. All species concoct powerful juices to begin digestion outside their own bodies, spreading those fluids into their victims’ bodies to break down and allow them to siphon out their organs. All make silk that is among the strongest natural substances, using it to spin snares, egg cases, lifelines, or weatherproof retreats.

The web is a spider’s answer to the evolution of wings in insects. Skillfully crafted in dozens of basic shapes to snatch small organisms out of the air in flight, webs are nonetheless disdained by many species of crab, jumping, and wolf spiders that remain ambushers or wandering hunters. Most of the marsh’s spiders live only a year or less. But in mating and reproducing before they die, they leave behind a legacy of eggs hidden away in tough little silk cases or juveniles overwintering in the ground debris.

At whatever season I venture into the marsh, I’m now aware of these living wonders around me. Wind and rain, a regenerative urge in the soil, and a force for renewal in little predators almost 400 million years in the making are unconsciously preparing another of my thrilling tomorrows.

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Spiders Unmasked
Frank Graham Jr. reflects more on the eight-legged among us.