Getting comfortable with spiders

Stirling NNRs

Over the years I’ve developed an interest in the often overlooked invertebrates of Scotland.
So when Buglife hosted a series of free online webinars earlier in the year which focused on invertebrate identification (the recordings for which you can find on their YouTube channel), I was very keen to attend. I delved into the world of dragonflies, boosted my knowledge on beetles, and found myself surprisingly excited by spiders!

“If I can’t see them, they can’t see me!”
A little orb weaver hunkers down next to some wire coils

When it comes to underappreciated species, spiders are definitely not man’s best friend and even the most experienced field ecologist around can find themselves feeling a bit squeamish in their presence. But given that (in the UK at least) they are entirely harmless to us, why all the discomfort? Some scientists believe it’s rooted in a primitive fear, while others say it’s more cultural and a product of our environment. Given that many people are able to overcome their dislike of spiders (and others never have this fear to begin with) I’m inclined towards the latter.

Whatever the reason, when it comes to getting comfortable with these eight legged beasties, I’ve found only one thing seems to work – good old fashioned educational exposure! So I decided to start photographing the spiders I see out on our reserves and attempt to identify them, as a way to learn more, get more comfortable, and hopefully spark a bit more interest around these often forgotten arachnids.

Running grass spider (Tibellus oblongus)

The running grass spider was one of the first (and definitelty the largest) spiders I have come across on Flanders so far! They have quite a characteristic long, thin shape (hence the name oblongus) and are a dull colour to blend in with long grass. This individual was sat quite motionless on a fence post, spotted while searching for belly button fluff. They were either getting a bit of sun or, more likely, waiting patiently for an unsuspecting small meal to pass by. This was a nice easy spider to start off with – they can only be confused with one other species that has much bigger mouthparts. If only they could all be this simple!

For example, I naively thought that the characterstic abdomens of these spiders would make them easier to identify. But these things are not always so simple, and flicking through my book didn’t yeild any likely results. We can rule out certain families, but both had quite generic shapes and were quick to run away from the camera which doesn’t help matters.

But this next spider – a beautifully camoflauged little thing that we only noticed because we were staring super intently at a female rannoch brindled beauty only a few inches lower on the tree – is perhaps a good example of how to use the power of deduction.

Running crab spider

From the overall body and leg shape I made (what I hope was) an educated guess that it is from the genus Philodromus, or running crab spiders. These spiders can vary so much in colour that microscopic identification is needed to truly confirm what you’re looking at, but things can still be narrowed down somewhat depending on location. There are 11 species of Philodromus, and only 6 have been recorded in Scotland. Of these 6, only 2 are considered common and widespread. As much as it would be nice to get all excited and assume I’ve spotted something rare, chances are it isn’t. And when I look in the book only one of these two species is described as having a preference for scattered tees and wet heathland – could Philodromus cespitum be our crab spider?

Jumping spider (Salticus cingulatus)

This fancy little thing requires even less deduction. It’s black and white pattern immediately tells me it’s an aptly named zebra spider. There are only two zebra spiders in Scotland: the common zebra spider (Salticus scenicus) and the less common (but still common) Salticus cingulatus. These spiders are tiny (they would sit comfortably on your pinkie fingernail) and constantly move about, which is why this photo is not the best quality, and for any other species would probably not be helpful for identification in any way.

But check out this photo in my ID book! Not only does this make me 99% sure that I photographed Salticus cingulatus, I will hedge my bets and take things a step further to say that it’s a female. You can even see they have the same slightly purple, glittery vibe!

What a beautiful little lady.

Salticus cingulatus image from “Britain’s Spiders” by WILDGuide

If you haven’t heard of jumping spiders before, I suggest you check them out. Their tiny size and large eyes definitely make them a very cute spider family, which I think is a nice way to begin to try and combat that icky feeling we often get when looking at spiders. As their name suggests they can jump quite a distance for their size, but only if provoked. Their large eyes allow them to see in pretty much the same way that humans do, and this visual focus has led to some fascinating courtship behaviour around the globe.

Flanders Moss NNR is also home to three other particularly flashy species: the bleeding heart spider (Nigma puella) (above left), the strawberry spider (Araneus alsine (above right) and the bog sun jumper (Heliophanus dampfi). All three species are nationally scare or rare, and were recorded by local expert Chris Cathrine – the sun jumper even got its two minutes of fame during Chris Packham’s BioBlitz in 2018!

Spiders really are an incredibly diverse bunch – they sit at the same taxonomic level as primates which means that when we talk about orb weavers, jumping spiders or running crab spiders, we are talking about species that are as genetically different to each other as if we were talking about humans, gorillas and lemurs! They are also one of our most abundant and diverse groups, with approximately 670 species in the UK. Compare that to only one primate species – humans – or even to our ~65 terrestrial mammal species, and you can immediately see why identification can pose a problem. A good start is Buglife’s Introduction to Spider Families, the book I have been using is “Britain’s Spiders” from the WILDGuide collection, and here is the Introduction to Spider Identification webinar.

A spider doing what they do best, storing a rather large meal away for later

Okay, so there’s a lot of spiders. But what use are they? We all know that spiders love catching flies in their webs, and this task should not be so easily dismissed. Spiders play a key role as natural pesticides and without them, insect populations could boom. That means more aphids eating our crops, and more midges eating us in summer. No thank you! They also act as a great food source for amphibians, birds and reptiles – spiders have a natural place within the wider ecosystem that has remained in balance for millions of years, but that is now so susceptible to collapse. Take out spiders, and who knows what may happen.

So next time you see a spider, try not to recoil in disgust or fear. Instead, take a deep breath and remind yourself that they are far more scared of you than you are of them – and stay open and curious to their presence. And if that isn’t enough to convince you, I challenge you to try finding Lucas scary!

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4 Responses to Getting comfortable with spiders

  1. Anne says:

    This is excellent PR for spiders!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. peigimccann says:

    Thanks for speaking for the spiders!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. David McCulloch says:

    I think it’s the long legs and quick movements that people find hard to like. I still can’t stand big spiders in the house, but a tumbler and a piece of card does the trick. I used to be scared of craneflies, especially as they dive-bombed me in the bath when I was wee, but now find them fascinating. Maybe I’ll come to love spiders too?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: Mothercare and nurseries in the spider world | 2 bogs, a swamp and some islands

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