My lovely wife Jo-anne has been in South America the last couple weeks doing field research on Argentine ants while I tend the home fires here in Tucson. I hope she finds it in her to forgive me for the post I am about to write.
Earlier today I got an email explaining why I’m not getting my much-awaited phone call:
I’d call but there aren’t any phones at this locutorio and we’re on our way out to look for social spiders.”
Excuse me? Social spiders? More important than me, your needy hubby?
Ok, I grant that social spiders are pretty cool, if a bit creepy. I remember those things from when I lived in South America. They spun massive webs that spanned tree-tops, anchored to the ground with tow lines as strong as steel cables. I nearly died from shock the first time I saw them. I had accidently walked under their tree, a large Enterolobium, and looked up to find the sky speckled with thousands of grape-sized spiders, all sharing a web tens of meters across. It still gives me the willies to think about.
A few years later I had a camera handy when a Paraguayan friend and I drove past what looked like a small body caught up in Shelob’s web. We stopped.
Turned out not to be a single body, but hundreds of little hairy bodies that had fastened several branches into a little cradle. Social spiders!
From close in:
Social spiders are something of a mystery. They don’t share all the traits that have tipped the more famously social ants, bees, wasps, and termites into cooperative living. Yet it appears that nearly a dozen independent lineages of spiders have converged on a cooperative lifestyle. There must be something advantageous in it for the spiders, and that question continues to attract inquisitive scientists like Jo-anne.
Still, which do you think is better? Me? Or that twitching arachnoid mass of legs? And anyway, wouldn’t calling me be *safer* than going out looking for those things?