Death from Below! (The Purse-Web Spider)

(Via: Wikimedia Commons)

Common Name: Purse-Web Spiders

A.K.A.: Family Atypidae

Vital Stats:

  • The family contains three genera; Atypus, Calommata, and Sphodros
  • Females reach up to 30mm (1.2”) in length
  • Fangs can measure up to half the spider’s body length
  • Prey includes crickets, beetles, millipedes, ants, wasps, and other spiders
  • Web tubes measure up to half a metre (20”) from top to bottom

Found: Africa, temperate regions of North America, Europe, and Asia

It Does What?!

Imagine you’re a beetle, peacefully strolling along the forest floor, minding your own business, when suddenly, two enormous black spikes drive up out of the earth and impale you through the abdomen. As everything fades to black, your last beetle-ly thought is, “What the hell was that?!

You have just become a tasty lunch for the purse-web spider.

So how does this work? Well, unlike most of the spiders we’re familiar with – those with small, pincer-like mouths that sit in webs all day – purse-webs are a type of primitive spider called a mygalomorph. In this group, the fangs are like a pair of large (relative to the spider) tusks that only move up and down; they don’t pinch, and this feature lends itself to some rather creative hunting methods.

Rather than constructing a flat, aerial web designed to have something fall into it, the purse-web spider spins what is essentially a silken tube-sock. The ‘foot’ of this sock lies along a slight depression in the ground, while the upper part lies vertically against a tree or rock (or, in some species, angles downward into the earth). The spider will then place bits of bark and lichen onto both parts of the web as camouflage. Over time, moss will actually begin to grow on the web, completing the disguise. All the spider needs to do now is wait, suspended from the ceiling of her underground lair, for some unwitting creature to walk over it. When this happens, she rushes to the source of the disturbance and spears her prey from below with her fangs before they realise what hit them (like this).

Invisible by spider standards, anyway.
(Via: Wikimedia Commons)

The spider will be vulnerable to larger predators if she ventures out into the open, so she simply cuts a slit in the web, drags her impaled prey inside, and seals up the hole again. Having sucked out their delicious insides, she then drops the dead husks out of the top of her sock like so much household garbage. In fact, researchers determined the diet of the purse-web spider by noting the various exoskeletons hanging from the outside of the web, having gotten caught on their way down. Apparently, all the dead bodies seemingly stuck to the side of a nearby tree aren’t much of a deterrent to other passersby.

So, since these spiders never leave their burrows, and kill anything that approaches, mating must be tricky, right? Right. The male is attracted to the female’s web by means of pheromones, and ventures out to find it. Once he locates the web, he must be very careful, tapping at the outside of the tube in a way that indicates he isn’t prey. Ultimately, though, whether he’s prey or not will be up to her. If the female inside isn’t yet mature or is already pregnant, she won’t hesitate to eat him when he attempts to enter the burrow. Researchers experimenting with placing male spiders in or near the webs of unreceptive females noted, essentially, that they run like hell as soon as they figure out what’s what. Research is amusing sometimes.

A male purse-web spider on what will be either the best or worst day of his life.
(Via: Florida Backyard Spiders)

But in the happy instances where the female is willing to mate, the male enters safely, and in fact continues to live with her for several months of domestic bliss before he dies naturally. And then she eats him anyway. Spiders are not sentimental creatures. Her eggs will take almost a year to hatch, and the young will stay with her for nearly another year after that, before striking out in the world to spin their own tube-sock of death.

Says Who?

  • Beatty (1986) Journal of Arachnology 14(1): 130-132
  • Coyle & Shear (1981) Journal of Arachnology 9: 317-326
  • Piper (2007) Extraordinary Animals: an encyclopedia of curious and unusual animals. Greenwood Press, Westport CT.
  • Schwendinger (1990) Zoologica Scripta 19(3): 353-366
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The Bloodhounds of the Plant World (Cuscuta sp.)

(Via: Marine Science)

Common Names: Dodder, Goldthread, Witch’s Shoelaces

A.K.A.: Genus Cuscuta

Vital Stats:

  • Approximately 200 species
  • Part of the Convolvulaceae family, which includes morning glory and sweet potato
  • Only 15-20 species are considered to be problematic crop parasites

Found: Throughout temperate and tropical parts of the world

It Does What?!

We’ve discussed a few parasites on this blog already, and they’ve all been pretty typical of what comes to mind when we think of parasitic organisms- tiny, malignant little creatures that invade the host’s body, steal its resources, and, in some cases, eat its tongue. But when we think ‘parasite,’ we don’t usually think ‘plant.’ As it turns out, there are an estimated 4500 parasitic species just among the angiosperms, or flowering plants. Among them, dodders have to be one of the strangest.

Found nearly throughout the world, these vine-like plants begin as tiny seeds that germinate late in the spring or summer, after their potential host plants have established themselves. The young seedling has no functional roots and little or no ability to photosynthesize, so initially, it must make do with what little nutrition was stored in its seed. This isn’t much, so the plant has only a few days to a week to reach a host before it dies. To better its chances, the dodder stem swings around in a helicopter-like fashion as it grows, trying to hit something useful.

Much more impressive is the plant’s other method of finding suitable hosts- a sense of smell. Recent research has found that, uniquely among plants, the dodder can actually detect odours given off by surrounding plants and grow towards them. In experiments, the seedlings were found to grow toward the scent of a tomato, even if no actual plant was present. What’s more, they are capable of showing a preference among hosts. Presented with both tomato plants, which make excellent hosts, and wheat plants, which make poor hosts, seedlings were found to grow toward the aroma of tomatoes much more often. Like herbivores, they can use scent to forage amongst a variety of species for their preferred prey.

Smells like lunch… even to other plants.
(Via: Wikimedia Commons)

Once a host plant is found, the dodder begins to twine itself around the stem and to form haustoria (singular: haustorium). These are like tiny tap roots that pierce the host’s stem and actually push between the living cells inside until they reach the vascular system. Once there, the haustoria enter both the xylem (where water and minerals move upward from the roots) and the phloem (where sugars from photosynthesis move around the plant). From these two sources, the dodder receives all its nutrients and water, freeing it from any need for a root system, or even a connection to the soil. And since it doesn’t need to capture solar energy, all green pigment fades from the parasite, and it turns a distinctive yellow or red colour. Leaves aren’t necessary either, which is why the plant is essentially nothing but stem, explaining its common name of “witch’s shoelaces.”

Not what you want to see when you head out to weed the garden.
(Via: County of Los Angeles)

Once it gets comfortable on its new host, the dodder can grow at a rate of several centimetres a day (impressive for a plant) and produce stems of a kilometre or more in length, quickly overrunning an area. It can also attach itself to additional hosts – hundreds, in fact – which is problematic, because at this point it becomes the plant equivalent of a dirty shared needle. Since the vasculature of the hosts is connected, any virus present in one host can be freely transferred to any other. This ability, coupled with its affinity for potatoes, tomatoes, tobacco, and several other important crops, makes dodder a major nuisance for many farmers. And since it’s able to regenerate from just a single, tiny haustorium left in a host plant, it’s really hard to get rid of. There’s always a flip side, though; in some ecosystems, dodder can actually maintain biodiversity by preferentially parasitising the more competitive plants, allowing the weaker ones to survive. It seems dodder may also be the Robin Hood of the plant world.

[Extra Credit: Here’s a video showing how dodder can completely take over a group of nettle plants, complete with ominous soundtrack. Narrated by the fantastic Sir David Attenborough.]

Says Who?

  • Costea (2007-2012) Digital Atlas of Cuscuta (Convolvulaceae). Wilfred Laurier University Herbarium, Ontario, Canada
  • Furuhashi et al. (2011) Journal of Plant Interactions 6(4): 207-219
  • Hosford (1967) Botanical Review 33(4): 387-406
  • Pennisi (2006) Science 313: 1867
  • Runyon et al. (2006) Science 313:1964-1967

    Cuscuta: 1, Acacia: 0
    (Via: Wikimedia Commons)