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A Moment of Creativity: A bite from a wandering spider (Phoneutria)

I think the best way to start this post is right at the end. This is me getting tagged by a wandering spider (Phoneutria boliviensis), one of the most venomous and defensive spiders in the world.

Wandering spider (Phoneutria boliviensis) in mid-bite. Oh, the pain!

Wandering spider (Phoneutria boliviensis) in mid-bite. Oh, the pain!

These spiders possess a potent neurotoxic venom that, if delivered at a sufficient quantity, has the potential to kill an adult human. So, I got bitten and yet I am still alive to brag about this? What is going on?

Things are not always what they seem. This is not a real spider bite. In fact, this is not a spider. This animal is maybe 10% spider. I know one day my twisted sense of humor is going to get me into trouble. I should be careful not to ‘cry wolf’ too many times or I will be left with no friends who care for me.

You might remember that two years ago I encountered a wandering spider (also commonly known as banana spider) under my bed when I visited the Ecuadorian Amazon. That female was guarding her offspring, and what I did not know at the time is that they had already started to disperse from the nest. Some of them found their way into folds in my backpack and hitched a ride with me back home. This happens much more often than you would think. Every day small organisms such as insects, arachnids, snails, and also plant seeds, moss, and fungi find their way into new territories with our help whether we are aware of it or not. Now, there is no need to be alarmed – wandering spiders are not going to spread and take over North America. The vast majority of exotic “traveling” spiders are NOT even wandering spiders, and even if they do pop up every once in a while, the cold winter temperatures and low air humidity will finish them off. In my case, I had a dilemma: to kill the spiders immediately, or to keep them for a while in order to learn more and then donate them for scientific work. I chose the second option. It made more sense to use this opportunity to document this species’ natural history. For example, after two years, even with proper feeding, the spider did not reach its adult stage. They must be long-lived. I should also note that I have a background as a professional arthropod keeper so I knew what I was getting into. This is not something I would recommend to inexperienced hobbyists.

Wandering spider (Phoneutria boliviensis) aka banana spider in my kitchen

Wandering spider (Phoneutria boliviensis) aka banana spider in my kitchen

Since then, I have been meticulously following the baby spider, sometimes taking ridiculous photos that depict unrealistic situations. Surprisingly, this species seems tamer than its reputation suggests, but caution is always the key. After a while I started pondering the idea of creating an image of the spider in mid-bite. The original idea was to photograph it during feeding, but then a better idea came up. I waited months. Finally, I had what I needed – a fresh molt.

Wandering spider (Phoneutria boliviensis) molt

Wandering spider (Phoneutria boliviensis) molt

Yes, what you see in the photo opening this post is nothing but an empty shell. The spider itself was resting in its enclosure during the time I took the photo. Like I said, things are not always what they seem.

Even though this was not a real bite from a living spider, it was still painful. Those fangs (chelicerae) are extremely sharp, and they have no problem piercing through human skin. If you search online you will find photos of people handling Phoneutria spiders with bare hands. That, in my opinion, is pure irresponsibility and a lack of judgment. I will never, ever let these spiders anywhere near my hands. And neither should you. Learn to respect and admire these majestic animals from a distance.

Dirty dancing

I don’t dance.
It has cost me much time and good friendships trying to explain why, so I will not go into details here about it. Let’s just say that I tried many times, and it always felt too unnatural to me. However, not so long ago it occurred to me that there are a few creatures in this world that can make me dance. Surprisingly, these creatures are not human. I had the pleasure of meeting one of them in my last visit to Ecuador. It was a hot, humid afternoon, and I was busy photographing a cooperative jumping spider for Meet Your Neighbours project. Suddenly out of nowhere, I saw something that looked like a biplane passing above my head. At first I ignored it, thinking maybe the intense heat took its toll and I was hallucinating, nevertheless that thing passed again, this time drawing the curious attention of my eight-legged subject. I looked up and saw nothing at first. Then I saw the strangest mosquito hovering right in front of my nose.

I recognized it immediately as a member of the genus Sabethes. There is no other mosquito in the world that has such an elegant appearance: its body is quite large, covered with blue and green iridescent scales. The legs are exceptionally long, each bearing a wide flattened brush of hairs, like a paddle. During flight the legs are extended forward and backwards, partially curved, giving the hovering mosquito a unique “aircraft” appearance. Members of the genus are found only in northern Latin America, and the females are important vectors of several tropical diseases, such as yellow fever and dangue fever. The function of the paddles found on the legs of males and females is poorly understood. A scientific study showed that males court and mate normally even when the paddles are removed, whereas paddle-less females are rarely approached by males. It is widely accepted among evolutionary scientists that elaborate ornaments on females take part in reversal of the sex roles, where females compete among themselves for the attention of and mating with the males. This may be a possible explanation for the extensive ornamentation on Sabethes females. Like many tropical mosquito species, Sabethes reproduce in small tree holes or bromelliads, where accumulating rainwater serves as medium for their aquatic larvae.

Sabethes sp., female with intense ornamentation on the legs

Sabethes sp., female with intense ornamentation on the legs

 

I had to be quick. These mosquitoes are not very common and I knew years could pass before I encounter them again. Upon careful inspection, I realized there were two Sabethes mosquitoes flying in my wooden cabin. The big one, with impressive ornamentation on the legs, earned the name ‘mothership’, while I named the smaller female ‘maid’, for lacking brushes on the forelimbs. I started following the mosquitoes in the room, counting steps as I was walking towards them, like a slow dance. Or maybe it was vice versa, and the hovering blood-sucking females were actually following my every move? It was so hot that I did not give it much thought. It is funny to think of Sabethes as a mosquito you want to get bitten by, just to get a closer look at this wonder of nature. At some point I was so frustrated with my attempts to approach the mosquitoes, that I shouted: “Come here and take my blood!”

I hate to admit, but the bite of Sabethes sp. is rather painful.

I hate to admit, but the bite of Sabethes sp. is rather painful.

 

In general, mosquitoes are attracted to dark objects, but they also respond to chemical compounds found in human sweat. I was sweating like crazy because of the heat and the constant movement. This was my own version of the film “Dirty Dancing”. Sad to admit it, but many times, the females were more interested in the big black object in front of them and landed on my camera. Then we had to start our dance all over.
After some time the ‘maid’ lost interest and escaped through the chicken mesh stretched over the window. I was left with the ‘mothership’. And so we were, dancing slowly around the shaded cabin. Me, moving about in small steps, arms extended forward, hoping for some contact, and her, elegantly following my every move, but avoiding me altogether. It was quite enchanting. From time to time, she embraced my hand and gave me a tiny kiss. And like an obsessed stalker, I relentlessly tried to document it. Some take me for a non-romantic person. I can definitely see why.

But then an idea came to my mind – what if I can make the mosquito come to me for a photograph, against my preferred background? And would it be possible to take a MYN photo of this skittish insect? This took some careful planning, and after hours of failed attempts I finally came up with a working method for it.

Sabethes sp. I never grew tired of looking at this beauty.

Sabethes sp. I never grew tired of looking at this beauty.

 

The ‘mothership’ remained patient enough to allow me to photograph quite a few interesting shots before leaving me all alone in the jungle’s darkness. However, this experience will surely remain a good memory for years to come, perhaps my most captivating dancing partner – the world’s most beautiful mosquito.

Cruziohyla – a dream come true

In 2003 I visited Costa Rica as a part of my first trip to Latin America. One of the hostels I stayed at had a large poster hung featuring many Costa Rican frog species, to show the high amphibian diversity that is found in this beautiful country. This was the first time I saw a photo of a splendid leaf frog, Cruziohyla calcarifer (the same frog appears also on the cover of Piotr Nascrecki’s book “The Smaller Majority”). Back then it was called Agalychnis calcarifer but in 2005, following a revision in the Hylidae family, it was placed within a new genus, Cruziohyla, along with another species.
When I saw the photo I was stunned. It looked like a massive tree frog, with eye-catching coloration: dark green (dorsal) and bright orange (ventral). The sides of its body are finely striped in black against an orange background. Its eyes, featuring a vertical pupil – an indication this animal has a nocturnal lifestyle, are orange with a grey center. In addition, the foot-webbing is wide and the adhesion discs on the fingers are large and round, giving it a cutesy appearance.
I decided to set out and look for this species in the rainforest during my time in Costa Rica. Of course at that time I knew nothing about these frogs, and as expected I failed miserably in finding them (but I did find many red-eyed tree frogs!)

Fast forward to 2014. Visiting the Amazon rainforest in Ecuador, I was mainly searching for interesting insects and arachnids at night. I was fortunate to have good weather throughout this visit, until it started raining heavily on one of the nights prior to my departure. But this rain was like no other I have seen before – it was so warm that a thick fog formed, covering everything in the forest understory. I was about to declare this night a failure for observing arthropods, but very soon I learned my mistake. Following the creation of this natural sauna, hundreds, no, thousands of animals came out of their hiding spots. The forest was buzzing with orthopteran and amphibian calls, roaming arachnids and crawling velvet worms. It was magnificent, a naturalist’s dream. Among the noisy frog chorus coming from the dense canopy, there was one distinct call, louder than the others, which sounded like a short “moo” (remember those tipping-can cow-sound toys? Something like that.) unlike the typical “cluck” call characterizing tree frog species. It wasn’t long before I located the source, and upon seeing it my heart skipped a beat. Sitting on a leaf before me was the second species in the Cruziohyla genus, the fringe tree frog (Cruziohyla craspedopus)!

Fringe tree frog (Cruziohyla craspedopus) in its natural habitat. Photographed in the Amazon rainforest in Ecuador.

Fringe tree frog (Cruziohyla craspedopus) in its natural habitat. Photographed in the Amazon rainforest in Ecuador.

 

This is, in my humble opinion, the most beautiful tree frog in the world. I know that any attempt I make to describe it will not do justice to its astonishing splendor. The general appearance is similar to that of C. calcarifer, but the green dorsum is marbled with small bluish splotches that resemble moss or lichens and blend perfectly with tree leaves in the rainforest. Moreover, the body margins have “fringes” that are exceptionally long on the hind legs. Males sometimes display them to signal other males or females during courtship by extending their legs backwards.

Species of Cruziohyla are characterized by their bicolored iris, which is unique among tree frogs.

Species of Cruziohyla are characterized by their bicolored iris, which is unique among tree frogs.

 

At rest, C. craspedopus conceals its bright colors and blends perfectly with its surroundings thanks to color patches that resemble lichen spots on leaves.

At rest, C. craspedopus conceals its bright colors and blends perfectly with its surroundings thanks to color patches that resemble lichen spots on leaves.

 

A climbing C. craspedopus reveals its aposematic colors that are reminiscent of a tiger: bright orange contrasted with dark stripes. Note the fringes on the hind legs that gave this frog its common name.

A climbing C. craspedopus reveals its aposematic colors that are reminiscent of a tiger: bright orange contrasted with dark stripes. Note the fringes on the hind legs that gave this frog its common name.

 

Being a high canopy frog, C. craspedopus is cryptic and usually difficult to observe. I have never even dreamed I would have the chance of seeing one, let along in the wild. But spending some time walking in the warm fog I managed to see not one, not two but close to ten individuals. It seems that they like these conditions. After learning their favorite resting spots I could easily find them also by day. Fringe tree frogs descend from the high branches solely for breeding. Pairs in amplexus (typical anuran behavior in which the male grasps the female using his front legs and rides on her back) move about in the canopy until they locate a small body of water with an overhead cover, usually under fallen trees. The females then deposit egg clutches hanging above the water, and the hatching tadpoles drop down and start their aquatic life. Even though I checked under many fallen trees (while searching for Amblypygi) I was unsuccessful in finding egg clutches of this species. Better luck next time.

Finding a fringe tree frog during the day is a mission close to impossible. In addition to their excellent camouflage, the frogs tend to rest on tree leaves high above the ground, making it difficult (and dangerous) to access them.

Finding a fringe tree frog during the day is a mission close to impossible. In addition to their excellent camouflage, the frogs tend to rest on tree leaves high above the ground, making it difficult (and dangerous) to access them.

 

Cruziohyla craspedopus, "Meet Your Neighbours" style

Cruziohyla craspedopus, “Meet Your Neighbours” style

 

A monster under my bed

After a long break from updating this blog and some travels for fieldwork I am happy to return. And I have many stories up my sleeve. In fact, too many of them.

I have been extremely fortunate to travel to the rainforest in Ecuador, one of my favorite destinations. It is somewhat difficult to explain my attraction to the tropics – it is not a friendly environment, especially if one is actively seeking for “trouble” like I do. However, the opportunity to disconnect and escape from the noisy, crowded urban environment that overwhelms my senses with stimuli, and replace this with lush natural habitat, with equally overwhelming stimuli, but ones that actually make me think and not vice versa, is the meaning of true happiness for me.

I returned a third time to a reserve in Napo province within the Amazon Basin of Eastern Ecuador. Many things have changed since my last visit but it also felt like I never left. One of the only places I feel “at home out of home”.

On my third morning at the reserve, I could not help noticing that there are tiny spiders everywhere in my room: they were on the mosquito net, crawling on my backpack, climbing on my gear, and resting inside my clothes. They were everywhere. I knew there had to be a hatched egg sac somewhere close, and it seemed to be inside my room. After some time observing the baby spiders, I traced the source of the spiderlings to one wall, somewhere close to the floor, in the area where my bed stood.

You can imagine my surprise when I looked under the bed and saw this:

Female wandering spider (Phoneutria boliviensis) and her thousands of babies under my bed.

Female wandering spider (Phoneutria boliviensis) and her thousands of babies under my bed.

 

Not only there were literally thousands of spiderlings under the bed, right beside them rested one of the biggest “non-tarantula” spiders I have ever seen. Its body length was 45mm but with its leg span it could easily cover my hand. I immediately recognized the genus: Phoneutria, a wandering spider that belongs to the family Ctenidae.

Wandering spiders receive a lot of attention from the media mainly due to their medical importance but also due to misidentification of spiders that occasionally arrive with cargo originated in Latin America (a detailed explanation for this is here). Members of the genus Phoneutria are known to be harmful to humans due to their aggressive behavior and potent venom. However, this is usually over-exaggerated, and only two species from the genus are considered to be dangerous: P. nigriventer and P. fera. According to the distribution on the west side of the Amazon basin, I suspect the spider I found to be P. boliviensis, the smallest species of the genus, and also the least aggressive and dangerous.

This was not the first time I see this species, by the way. In 2007, I visited the same reserve with a colleague, and on our first night I saw an adult Phoneutria running across the outside wall of the very same room. At that time I had no clue what I was looking at, and it registered as a “huge ctenid spider as big as my hand”.

The Phoneutria boliviensis spider was feeding while guarding the babies. Good to know that there was someone taking care of those tropical roaches and kissing bugs under my bed!

The Phoneutria boliviensis spider was feeding while guarding the babies. Good to know that there was someone taking care of those tropical roaches and kissing bugs under my bed!

 

I slowly approached the spider, crawling on my belly, camera-in-hand. When I got close enough I noticed that the mother was feeding on a large insect. From bits and pieces that were scattered below the spider I realized the prey is a blattodean nymph, member of the genus Blaberus. These are among the largest species of cockroaches, so this prey was not only challenging to capture, but also provided a decent meal for the hungry female while guarding her offspring. In general, Phoneutria spiders are efficient nocturnal hunters that feed on large insects but also on vertebrates, such as frogs, lizards and small rodents.

The Phoneutria boliviensis mother enjoying her meal unalarmed by my presence

The Phoneutria boliviensis mother enjoying her meal unalarmed by my presence

 

While I was very happy to find this spider, I was a bit reluctant to sleep above one of the world’s most venomous spiders. I had a series of unfortunate events lately, and I did not want to add that kind of story to my résumé. I debated whether I should take the adult spider out of the room. I did not like the thought of separating the mother from her babies, but spiderlings are known to be independent right after their first molt, and most of them end up being cannibalized by their siblings anyway. In addition, there are several reports stating that Phoneutria females guarding an egg sac are a bit more toxic than females without egg sacs. For these reasons I decided to gently direct the spider into a container without aggravating it, and then release it into the rainforest.

Surprisingly, the spider was not aggressive during this short transfer. In fact, it was one of the most docile spiders I have seen. It is possible that it was relaxed from feeding, though. When I took a step back, the spider immediately erected its body and lifted its front legs, revealing beautiful aposematic coloration on its underside. It stayed like this for some time, allowing me to get a little closer and to experiment with photography. I started to get used to its behavior and got closer with my camera until I almost touched the spider with the front element of the lens. It seemed that the spider couldn’t care less for this. Then it scared me to death when it decided to climb on the lens.

Phoneutria boliviensis warns me to back off, and for a very good reason. This spider possess a highly potent venom and typically displays a defensive behavior prior to biting.

Phoneutria boliviensis warns me to back off, and for a very good reason. This spider possess a highly potent venom and typically displays a defensive behavior prior to biting.

 

By the way, spiders are not monsters and I am not afraid of them. But whenever I stumble upon a large invertebrate there is always a split second of sudden surprise and amazement. I guess it is one of those overwhelming nature-related stimuli that I mentioned above.