OUTDOORS: Freaky or fascinating? Keep an eye out for these critters

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About 30 species of spiders make their home in Ontario, and their hunting techniques vary, explains the outdoor columnist

As you can see from the attached photo, this week’s column is not about cute bunnies or cute baby chickens. However, it is about a really interesting find in our woodshed: a gigantic spider.

We all know that when cleaning up long-neglected spots around the basement and garage, surprising finds often come to light, if not always the item you were looking for. These dark, sometimes damp, often undisturbed areas are a great sanctuary for creatures that don’t feel like interacting with humans.

Whether it’s bugs and centipedes, or spiders and snakes, nobody likes their perfect abode suddenly torn apart. “Oh, sunlight! arrrgh! Take cover!” When we humans stumble along and move the piled wood or overturned baskets, the dwellers get a little startled and annoyed.

Spiders can be quite fascinating creatures or the stuff of nightmares. As scientists (citizens or professionals) with a natural curiosity, let’s stick to the first thought.

First the basics: Spiders are not insects. You are in your own scientific group. Insects have six legs; Spiders and their relatives have eight. Insects have three body parts (head, thorax, and abdomen), while spiders only have two. (Perhaps an evolutionary cost reduction led to spiders having a mixed thorax and abdomen.) Many insects have wings. Spiders never do that.

Our region’s spiders tend to be small to medium-sized, but a vacation to a tropical regime will quickly enlighten you to the fact that some of these hot tropical spiders can grow to be quite large – nightmare-sized. So we are lucky to live in a temperate zone here. Another good reason for a “holiday at home”?

Of the thousands of spider species on our little plant, about 30 are native to Ontario. Since they are all predatory and survive by killing other small creatures, most have venomous bites. Hold onto. Don’t stop reading here as you will only get into this nightmare mode. Their jaws are small, perhaps better described as tiny, and most couldn’t even break your skin.

One of the first steps to encountering spiders up close is figuring out how they get their prey. They all do it, just in different ways. No doubt you’ve noticed a web or two during your wanderings, and this is the most common way a spider lassoes fast-flying food. The web can be a few strands of cobwebs suspended between the basement floorboards, or an intricate pattern intricately designed between two straws of hay.

The weaves are sticky and if Ms. Butterfly or Mssrs. Grasshopper and Moth are coming to visit, maybe they’ll stay for lunch whether they like it or not. Bwa-ha-ha-ha-ha! Oops, sorry, no more nightmare jokes.

Another way to get a solid meal is that if the food doesn’t come to you, go eat it. A group of spiders known as wolf spiders (when they shoot the animated film for these nature columns, I think these spiders will have a cigarette hanging loosely from their mouth and are wearing studded leather jackets) are masters at tracking. There are no nets here to confuse guests at dinner; These wolf spiders will just run by and pick up lunch along the way.

Wolf spiders tend to be large and strong, perhaps the most physically fit in the entire spider kingdom. Wolf Spiders – Don’t mess with them, especially if you’re a cricket or other mini-beast crawling on the ground.

The spider in the photo is a skinny-legged wolf spider, probably a female. As with wasps and bees, mating took place last fall, followed by the imminent death of the males; the fertilized females have overwintered in sheltered areas and are now waking up for the brood-rearing season.

This one scurried out from under a rotting beam I’m trying to replace and once exposed to the light it stood still. Very quiet. Watch. Calculation. weighing the options. It took a tickle on its legs from my finger to convince it to move on, to move to the other side of the shed.

Another group of spiders that hunt their prey are the jumping spiders and they are without a doubt the cutest little spiders you will ever see. That is, if you ever see one, because they are indeed small and, yes, very fast, jumping huge distances to snag unsuspecting prey. But sweet. Definitely cute.

And then there’s the third way of putting food on the plate, so to speak. It may seem lazy, as neither much time is spent creating a web, nor effort put into overpowering an unfortunate, pathetic, smaller creature. This method consists of just sitting and waiting to be ambushed!

These sneaky individuals belong to a group called flower spiders or crab spiders. They hide in, on or next to a flower blossom and wait. And hope. Hope a bee or butterfly will come by. Hope the flower they are perched on will attract a pollinator. Hope they can grab and paralyze their winged meal before it can take off again.

There are a few other groups of spiders worth discussing, but I’ll save them for summertime reading. Now, as you gather up last fall’s leaves and dig up whatever you need to dig out of the shed, keep an eye out for an interesting critter or two that may have used your space as a wintering sanctuary.

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