No Halloween haunted house would be complete without plenty of cobwebs. These days you can buy them in spray cans for spooky effects on a modest scale or shoot them out of compressed-air guns that can blow sheets of webs up to 30 feet. No faux web, however, can come close to what a multitude of genuine spiders created on a nature trail in northeast Texas, 50 miles from Dallas. Spreading oaks, hackberries, and poison oak at Lake Tawakoni State Park were encased in silk over an area of 200 square yards, and the whine of trapped midges vibrated in the ears of awed visitors.
The enormous mass of webs, spun by inestimable numbers of spiders, wasn’t discovered until early August, and it’s anyone’s guess as to when the arachnids began their work. No one had been out there for a month because rain had turned the trail into a mushy mess, says park manager Donna Garde. “All I know is that the web was absolutely pristine, a white fairyland, when I first saw it,” she says. By the end of the month, however, older areas, already sagging under the weight of a zillion desiccated insect carcasses, had been battered by wind and rain and had turned an unsightly brown.
Exactly what set the giant Texas web in motion may never be determined. Some spider experts believe it was a “mass dispersal event.” For example, in 2002 a British Columbia biologist discovered a pliable web stretched over 60 acres of a clover field. It had been spun by tens of millions of adult sheet-weaver spiders blocked from undergoing an autumn migration. The arachnids usually cast their fate to the wind on gossamer strands.
This process, called ballooning, is similar to the way that milkweed, thistle, and dandelion seeds are distributed far and wide. Indeed, airborne spiders have been captured at an altitude of 10,000 feet and have colonized volcanic islands far out to sea.
But Allen Dean, a Texas A&M University entomologist, examined a small collection of specimens from the cobweb-draped trail and identified adults and juvenile spiders from 11 arachnid families, not just one. He reports that the most abundant species was a long-jawed orbweaver (Tetragnatha guatemalensis), a slender spider about half an inch long that occurs from Canada to Central America. Long-jawed orbweavers, he points out, are known to live near water. He also found numerous jumping spiders, parasitic dewdrop spiders, and garden spiders.
In other words, there’s a good chance the various spiders were already present in the park and didn’t waft in from distant places. “We’ve had an awful lot of rain in Texas this year,” Dean says, “and populations of midges and other insect prey simply exploded.” So conditions apparently were right for a spider boom as well. Still, he adds, “I’ve never seen this before.”—Les Line
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