Yes, my initial reaction upon seeing the captured spider placed before me was less than professional, I will admit. But, the dark furry creature that spanned the bottom of the pretzel jar was shocking – about three inches in circumference around the legs. The body was fully 1 inch long. Its movements were measured and slow and its colors muted and mouse-like, so it was not especially threatening. But, the hollow dry remains of the Ctenuchia moth next to it were mute evidence that this thing was a predator – a relatively huge predator at that. My reptilian brain was screaming while my simian brain bade me to look closer.
“I kept seeing this thing on my engine block, “said Terry, the fellow who brought it in, “but I couldn’t catch it. One day I came out and there-it-was (he has a way of speed joining his words) on the driveway in front of the truck sooooooo, I-grabbed-it.” There was nothing about his demeanor that was creeped out or edgy. It was as if he’d captured a shrew or something. Unfortunately, I initially mis-identified the thing as I checked to make sure the lid was on really tight. I called it a wolf spider and declared it harmless as I discovered that the lid was barely on and quickly remedied the situation. Terry was satisfied and left the creature in my charge.
I was immediately ashamed of my reaction. Here was a guy who repeatedly encountered this huge spider and sought to catch it. He was fascinated by it. I, the trained naturalist, was horrified. He calmly captured it and took time to feed it, while I would have attempted to run it over. At the very least I would have accelerated the car and then slammed on the brakes in order to send the creature flying into the dicing blades of the fan. I am not proud of this.
I did do a bit of investigating and found out that Terry’s beast was not a wolf spider but was a Fishing Spider. These creatures are among the largest spiders found in the Midwest. They are our tarantulas. Like those south-western giants they are relatively harmless. Sure they can inflict a bite, but they choose not to (and their venom is not of the deadly sort – to humans that is). Fishing Spiders, true to their name, do habitually hang out around water and can even walk on it, but they also spend a good amount of time in dry land habitats.
As near as I could tell, this particular species was called Dolomedes tenebrosus -the ornamentation on the abdomen and cephalothroax point to this identification (see above and detail here). Wide spreading hairy legs allow this spider to distribute weight on the water and the fine fuzzy coat traps in air in the event of a temporary dive. Those eight lanky legs also provide excellent tools for engaging in short fast bursts on land to grab prey. Unlike the wolf spiders, who chase down their prey, fishing spiders wait in ambush (for instance, when people lift up their truck hoods) and then launch an attack.
I released Terry’s spider and took the opportunity to take a few pictures of it before it ambled off. I was, in fact, almost sad to see it disappear into the undergrowth. It moved more like a mammal rather than a jittery spider and those beady eyes – all eight of them – seemed to exude some deep intelligence.
The thought of this encounter was still clear on my mind later in the day as I returned home, but it didn’t leave an un-easy feeling. As I went to turn the house lights off for the night, however, it did creep back into my thought pattern. Dolomedes, like most spiders, are nocturnal. With each extinguished bulb the house grew darker and the spider grew larger in my mind until I imagined him sitting smack dab in the middle of my kitchen floor like some kind of bear rug! You can imagine my shock when that imaginary spider turned out to be a real one. Unbelievably, although this individual was not Terry’s spider, it was another Fishing Spider and it was in my house (on the edge of slipping into the darkness behind the refrigerator).
Oddly enough, I did not wimper or cower. I only made an appeal to the Virgin Mary and slapped a container over the hefty beast and walked it out the front door with the intention of placing it in the middle of the road so that a car would run it over. I changed my mind upon reaching the edge of the yard and simply dumped it onto the wet grass.
I am getting better at these things. If it returns I will chop it up into a million pieces, but I am confident that won’t happen). Good night to you all.