Alien Life Form or Spider? - The Spined Micrathena

My son Sebastian and I were walking along a trail through the woods when suddenly he screamed- "Dad! I have an alien life form on my face!" Being the brave Dad that I am, I quickly ran- a nervous habit I have whenever I hear a blood curdling scream while walking in the woods. After I had ran for a bit, I decided that I had better go back and check on my son.

He was not amused. "I'm glad that I hadn't been attacked by a bear- some help you would have been!" Being wise and patient, I realized that this was a perfect time for me to teach him more wisdom from nature.

"Son," I said, as I lit my pipe, and took a few puffs for effect. "Nature is all about the quick and the dead. If you're not quick, you're dead." He looked at me like I was the alien life form and then began examining the original cause for all of the commotion.

It turns out that his scream was caused by an upclose look at the decidedly alien looking Spined Micrathena spider. It is an orb weaver spider that makes lovely (when covered in dew or seen shimmering in the sunlight), usually invisible webs across trails. The spider considerately builds a web at a height of "face level." In this case- the face level of a nine year old boy. The actual height of the web is typically between 3' to 8'.

Sebastian had walked into a female Spined Micrathena's web. How did I know that? Didn't you see the legs on that spider in the photo- that's no male, baby. Actually, I'm pulling your leg! Ha, ha- nature is fun. No, in all seriousness, only the females spin webs. So, if you walk into a Spined Micrathena web- and you will- and see a spider sitting in the middle of the web- please tip your hat to the lady.

"So, Daniel, how can I walk in the woods without running into one of these spider webs and thereby messing up my hair?" I'm glad you asked- there is a solution. Walk at night. The female Spined Micrathena eats her web after sunset- and then rebuilds it again the next morning after sunrise. Of course, if you do hike at night- look out for the Barn Spider- it is much bigger and uglier- but more about him in his own blog posting.

For the scientific readers: the Spined Micrathena is in the orb weaver family. It's scientific name is Micrathena gracilis.

I hereby submit the Spined Micrathena for the following
spider award: one nomination for Most Inconsiderate to Hikers.


Frank said...

I just encountered a Spined Micrathena the other day and I am fascinated by her. She has been in the same spot at work for a few days and is very interesting to watch. I had read that they are somewhat clumsy spiders. I can attest to that. Three times I attempted to drop an ant into her web and before she could reach it , the ant had fallen out. One time when she did reach it in time it seemed as if she had cut it out of the web and then threw it to the ground.

Strange looking and strange acting but very interesting to view.

Daniel Spurgeon said...

Hi Frank- thank you very much for the useful feedback! What state do you live in? I live in North Alabama. While hiking a weekend or so ago- we saw a few of these spiders- one had built her web right across the trail. As I mentioned in my article- these are very inconsiderate spiders for hikers- or maybe it is us hikers that are inconsiderate to her! :)

Shannon said...

There is a female spined micrathena at my parents' house in morgan township, ohio. I have never seen one before. Are they common out here?

E. Brundige said...

Hee! I just did a websearch for my favorite backyard spider from my childhood in Pennsylvania.

I was a strange tomboy and used to watch them build their webs -- in fact, I confess I sometimes tore the webs to watch them work on repairs. Also, I'm afraid I fed them ants and other unfortunate victims to study them. (I discovered that this spider will give a violent wiggle when it detects something on the web, trying to snarl whatever it is on sticky strands.)

I love the way orb weavers measure so accurately and simply, which again I learned from this spider. One of their back feet traces the previous orbit of the spiral. The gap between that outstretched toe and the spinnarets being constant, the spiral is absolutely regular in spacing as they circle around and around going inwards on the spokes with a little tap-tap-tap movement to anchor the strand on each spoke.

Your son has probably never heard of the TV show Babylon 5, which was an excellent SciFi show over a decade ago, but the "Minbari" race had spaceships and headgear that looked exactly like a spined micrathena.

And there you have it. Fan mail for an unfairly maligned spider. I nominate it for "Coolest carapace".