Spider Crimes: the Worst Halloween Decorations on the Shelf, Scientifically Speaking

by Melissa Hudnall

September comes and I am shaken to the core with fear. I know what’s coming. No, I don’t mean winter, I mean another year of dismembered bodies and deformed figures. Can I handle the pain in their hurt eyes? Then it happens; I see the first hint of a hairy leg. My trepidation is high as I round the corner to see…

ANATOMICALLY INCORRECT HALLOWEEN DECORATIONS!!!! 😮 😮 😮

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Kill… mmeeee…

I am infamous among my coworkers for getting just as upset as I am excited to see Halloween decorations going up. I adore Halloween, but I also love spiders, and this is where my conflict lies. Halloween does not love spiders. I have used my own tarantula so you can compare real treat to the tricks sitting on the shelves.

Let’s go over some spider basics so you too can feel my pain.

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Pay attention to the pedipalps and chelicerae; you may not see them again. Pedipalps are for mating and holding food, and chelicerae house the venom and end in fangs, so these are important body parts. Going without these four appendages is like missing your arms, jaws and teeth.

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First off, spiders have eight legs. Count the green circles. Only those are legs. Everything else, not legs.

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So basically, I ate this cookie to remove this abomination from the world.

Secondly, they have two body segments — not one, not three. The legs are also attached to the front segment, not the back! The front is the cephalothorax, meaning “head thorax” and the back is the abdomen. Attaching the legs to the back is the same as having a leg growing out of your stomach.

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I’m going to assume that these were not meant to be spiders with three segments, but rather very clever spider-mimicking ants. If you can have ant mimicking spiders, then surely it must work the other way around.

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These look like ladybugs hitching rides on top of spiders.

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And come on, people. Even dogs have standards. This chew toy is sub-par.

Lastly, have you ever tried your hardest and just barely missed your goal? I feel like this next spider embodies that moment. He has the correct number of legs, segments, pedipalps, chelicerae, and they’re all attached in the right places! However, SPIDERS DO NOT HAVE BONES!

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*Drops the mic.*

Editor’s Note: Melissa Hudnall is a Programs Facilitator for the Youth Education department at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

#ChillsAtHMNS

Stay cool in the rainforest: summer events unfold at the Cockrell Butterfly Center

Summer is here and the kids are out of school, so what better time to escape the heat and join us here at HMNS for some cool and educational arthropod experiences! The Cockrell Butterfly Center will be welcoming back a popular summertime program and introducing a couple of new ones which will be sure to excite the bug lover in everyone! Every week this summer, we will be giving you a chance to get up close and personal with some of our famous residents on three different days. Here’s a little about what we’ll be up to…

Small Talk: Tuesdays at 1 p.m.

Small creatures, big information! Every Tuesday, in the Children’s Area on the main level of the CBC, we will be introducing you to a different resident of the Brown Hall of Entomology. Our entomologists will bring out our biggest and most exotic creatures as well as some familiar (or not-too-familiar) Houston natives. Giant katydids, Atlas moths, and odd arachnids are just some of the creatures you will meet. Each talk will fill your head with all kinds of cool information and facts about our feature creatures. Afterward, we will answer any questions you may have. Up-close viewing and sometimes touching will be permitted, and definitely feel free to bring the camera!

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Wing It!: Wednesdays at 10:30 a.m.

At the CBC, you can watch brand-new butterflies emerging from their chrysalises, pumping blood into their newly formed wings, and preparing for their first flight. After this, enter the rainforest filled with lush tropical plants and hundreds of butterflies fluttering through their naturalistic habitat. But, how do they get there? Every Wednesday morning, join our entomologists outside of the Chrysalis Corner in the Brown Hall of Entomology. We will talk about a typical butterfly release and answer questions. Then, you can walk into the rainforest and watch as brand new butterflies take their first flight in their new home. Touching of the delicate butterflies will not be permitted, but please feel free to take as many pictures as you want.

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Friday Feeding Frenzy: 9:30, 10, 10:30, and 11:30 a.m.

The main event! Get ready to see huge, ferocious, carnivorous insects and other animals feast on their prey in front of your very own eyes! This Friday and every Friday throughout the summer, the Cockrell Butterfly Center will be feeding a live animal for your viewing pleasure. We have several arthropods and even some reptiles that we will showcase. Here is a little about the line-up…

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Green Tree Pythons (Morelia viridis): Our green tree pythons, Kaa and Nagini, will be ready to dine on mice! These snakes are native to Indonesia, Australia, and New Guinea. Pythons are non-venomous snakes that subdue their prey by constricting. Their food consists mostly of small mammals and the occasional reptile. They lay in wait, curled around a tree branch, and when potential prey approaches, they strike from an “S” position, using their tails to anchor themselves to the branch. Once their prey is snagged, it’s lights out!

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Giant Asian Mantis (Hierodula membranacea): This praying mantis, one of the largest species, comes from Southeast Asia. Mantises are ambush predators and have several features that ensure their success in catching prey. Their amazing camouflage allows them to resemble either living or dead parts of plants, flowers, tree bark, stones, or sticks. Not only does this help conceal them from predators, it also keeps potential prey oblivious to their presence. An insect that wanders too close is snatched by raptorial front legs (legs specialized for grabbing) and held still by several tough spines. The mantis uses chewing mandibles to eat its victim alive. Mantises have excellent vision at close range and can see as far as 20 meters. Their eyes are large and located on the sides of their head, allowing the insect to see all around itself. They can keep their eyes on potential prey by inconspicuously moving their heads up to 180 degrees. Nothing can escape their field of vision. Most mantises feed on smaller insects, but some giant species can take down small reptiles, amphibians, and even rodents!

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Giant Centipede (Scolopendra heros): Centipedes are predatory, long-bodied arthropods with many pairs of legs – one pair per body segment. Centipedes are venomous and can be dangerous, so they are not to be confused with the congenial millipede, which poses no threat to humans and has four legs per body segment. This centipede, AKA the giant red-headed centipede, can run very quickly to pursue and catch its prey, which it immobilizes with repeated bites from two venomous fangs. Once dead, the prey is devoured. Giant centipedes of this and similar species are found in Mexico and the southwestern United States. The coloration, known as aposematic or warning coloration, serves as a message to other animals: “Touch me, and you’ll get more than you bargained for!” A bite from one of these can cause intense pain that lasts for hours or days and can cause a severe reaction in someone who is allergic. These hunters take down smaller arthropods, small reptiles and amphibians, small rodents, and have even been known to hunt tarantulas!

Wolf Spider (Hogna carolinensis): This is the largest species of wolf spider found in the United States! Most wolf spiders are large and can sometimes be confused with tarantulas. The name wolf spider refers to their hunting behavior. Instead of building a web, they wait to ambush their prey and at other times, they chase it for a short distance. Wolf spiders inject venom into their prey to immobilize it. They then use digestive enzymes to liquefy the insides and then slurp it up through a tube that leads to the stomach. Wolf spiders have no interest in biting people, but will if provoked. The severity of their bite has been compared to that of a bee sting.

Goliath Birdeater Tarantula (Theraphosa blondi): This is the big mama of all tarantulas and regarded as the largest spider in the world. They can reach a weight of 5.3 ounces (more than a quarter pounder) and have a leg-span of 12 inches (about the size of a dinner plate). The name birdeater is a misnomer as they do not eat birds, although they could. They are native to marshy swamplands in South America, and like other large spiders, they feed on mostly insects. However, because of their size, they often go for small reptiles, amphibians, and rodents. If threatened, these tarantulas can produce an eerie hissing noise by rubbing together setae on their legs. If that doesn’t creep you out enough to stay away, watch out for the urticating hairs they kick off their abdomens into the air. If these hairs come into contact with your skin, you get really itchy, and you don’t even want to know what happens if they get in your eyes! Birdie is our resident birdeater and she’s a thrill to watch as she shoves as many crickets into her mouth as possible!

So if creepy crawlies are your thing, visit the CBC this summer, and witness the goings-on of our staff and our tiny, fascinating residents.

New Furry Friends for the Butterfly Center!

I am used to needing to replace insects on display. There are several factors that have an effect on their longevity and for the most part they do very well, but insects only live so long. I get so preoccupied with them that I forget about the more long-lived species such as the arachnids – like tarantulas and scorpions.

I recently realized that I have had the same 3 tarantulas on display for about 3 years. Female tarantulas can live upwards of 30 years if properly cared for. And as long as they are alive, I keep them on display. I started thinking, duh, why don’t I get some new tarantulas so people will have something different to look at? This is not to say that the ones on display aren’t gorgeous! I curently have a Mexican red-knee, an Indian ornamental and a Goliath birdeater. All three are strikingly beautiful animals! The birdeater will stay because it is the largest spider and people are definitely curious about that. The other two can retire, for now, to the peace and tranquility of the containment room.

So, I have got to go shopping! Ordering tarantulas is so much fun because there are so many to choose from. They come in an unbelievable array of colors; it can be so hard to choose! I wanted to pick those that are better suited for display and not for handling. We do handle tarantulas for our outreach program, Bugs on Wheels, but for that we have Rosie, a 17 year old Chilean rose hair that is such a doll and quite possibly the sweetest, most patient tarantula that ever lived!

Once I perused what was available, I picked the only two that I could get as adults and one spiderling that I can raise. It should be an adult in about a year. Getting a box of live bugs in the mail is like Christmas, it’s so exciting! When I saw these tarantulas for the first time I was overjoyed, they look even better in person. They are very shy, which is why they are not appropriate for handling. They will live in the containment room until I have a chance to put them on display for everyone to see. Let’s meet them!

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Antilles pinktoe spider
Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1

First, let’s meet the Antilles pinktoe (Avicularia versicolor). Spiders in the genus Aviculariaare very common in the pet trade. They are native to the rainforests of South America and a few Caribbean islands. These tarantulas are pretty docile but can move very quickly! They actually have a habit of shooting excrement, also called guano, at their pursuers and they can actually be quite accurate. They are all characterized by pink tarsi, giving rise to the name pinktoe. The Antilles pinktoe is native to Martinique and Guadeloupe. They are tree-dwelling and spend their time in funnel shaped webs made in palm fronds or bromeliads. They are absolutely beautiful with a green carapace or head, a red abdomen and green legs, all covered with reddish pink hairs. They are very hairy! I took pictures of my new friends, unfortunately, they don’t really do them justice.  She is a sub-adult, so she needs to shed one more time to be fully grown. She will look great on display.

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Brazilian red and white spider
Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1

The other large female I purchased is called a Brazilian red and white or Nhandu chromatus, formerly, Lasiodora cristata. This spider is swiftly gaining in popularity. They are very large and sometimes called a white-striped birdeater. They have a grayish white head, white and black striped legs and a bright red abdomen. These are terrestrial tarantulas from Brazil. This species is nervous around people and will bolt if they feel frightened. I briefly held her the other day and she did quite well. I hope to have her feeling at home on display very soon!

The 3rd tarantula I purchased is one of the most popular species of spider and definitely one of the most beautiful. It’s called a Greenbottle Blue Tarantula (Chromatopelma cyaneopubescens). Wow, that’s a mouthful! The only ones available were spiderlings about .5-.75 inches long (very tiny). We used to have one of these spiders and they are really magnificent so I thought I’d try raising one. I only hope that it’s a female. They are very hard to sex at this size, but I will find out when it gets a bit larger.

The only drawback to having a male is that it would only live for a couple of years compared to the long-lived female.  When I opened up the box, I thought I had gotten the wrong thing. It looks completely different from the adult! I knew it would, but I was not expecting it to look so drastically different. When full grown, this spider will have metallic blue legs, a bluish green head and a bright red abdomen They are very striking.  They are native to the desert areas of Venezuela. They live in burrows lined with silk to protect them from the harsh climate.  They tend to be skittish and run very fast when disturbed. Maybe since this one is so young, I can get it more acclimated to being handled. I can’t wait to see how beautiful it will become!

Greenbottle Blue Tarantula
Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1

I think these tarantulas will have long and happy lives here, especially since I spoil everything in my care, but in a good way! I hope they will be around several years from now when I’ll be training a new entomologist to care of them. In the mean time I hope you’ll stop by to take a look at them in the Entomology Hall. Hopefully, even if you think you’re arachnophobic, you can gather up the courage to take a close look and see how colorful and beautiful a spider can be! Happy bug watching!

Punkin, my Halloween spider

Today’s guest blogger is Cletus Lee. Mr. Lee is a native of Virginia and received a BS in Geology from Virginia Tech.  He tells us that, after an interesting career in the Oil & Gas industry, followed by another in information sciences, he retired in 2008 and is pursuing nature photography, cycling and other long time hobbies.  He is an amateur arachnologist and resides in Bellaire, TX, just a few blocks from the Nature Discovery Center – his photos of spiders are fascinating and we thought we’d share them – along with Lee’s thoughts on the subjects of his photos – with you.

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Click to view large: Spinybacked Orbweaer
Creative Commons Licensephoto credit: Cletus Lee

It was Punkin’s “grandmother” that started my current interest in spiders.  One morning in May 2007, while opening the blinds in our den, I noticed a spider building a web just outside our den window in a corner between the den and the dining room.  From that point on, each day, I would eagerly open the blinds to greet the sun and my new little friend.

Spinybacked Orbweavers (Gasteracantha cancriformis) have long been one of my favorite spiders because they are colorful and decorate a neat orb web. Smaller than a dime, they can be found in the Houston area in shades of white, yellow and orange.   Their most prominent feature is the abdomen, which sports spike-like spines around its edge and a series of spots that create a smiley face pattern across the back.

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Click to view large: Yellow Orbweaver
Creative Commons Licensephoto credit: Cletus Lee

I continued watching the spider outside my window through the rest of May and into June.  One morning in late June, I was saddened to find the web and spider gone. I was disappointed to have my daily spider-watch ritual come to an end, but I was not disappointed for long.  A few days later, I was working outside near the old web’s location and saw two very small orb webs nearby.  A closer inspection revealed two tiny Spinybacked Orbweavers. As they grew, they molted and built larger webs. One spiderling disappeared and the other gradually moved over to the same corner of the house formerly occupied by her parent. I watched this spider, probably the daughter of the first, for about two months.  Near the end of August, she also disappeared during the night.

Once I knew the routine, I began searching the nearby bushes looking for the next generation.  Early in September, I found another Spinybacked Orbweaver. Unlike her mother and grandmother, she was orange and had a perfect jack-o-lantern face. With Halloween approaching, I decided to name my new spider Punkin.

"Punkin"
Click to view large: Punkin
Creative Commons Licensephoto credit: Cletus Lee

Late in September 2007, Punkin set up housekeeping in the same spot previously occupied by her mother and grandmother.  I was not certain how long spiders lived, but those earlier spiders seemed to last about two months as adults.  October came and went.  So did November and December.  To encourage Punkin to stay, I caught live bugs and tossed them onto the web.  She was one well-fed spider.  During the winter, Punkin received a lot of care and attention and stayed around my den window until late February 2008.

Observing three generations of spiders during the summer and fall of 2007 was an education.  Being able to see nature up close, right outside my window, was a treasured experience which has broadened my horizons and fostered a new respect for spiders.  With a flashlight, I now explore my backyard and the grounds of the neighborhood Nature Center nightly to check on my little friends and make some new ones.