By Mike Servedio
Almost every weekend when the weather is tolerable, you can find me hiking, most often in some of the most remote parts of eastern Pennsylvania. I have also traveled to distant locales including the deserts of Southern California and Nevada, the rugged mountains of Montana and Alberta, and the alpine areas of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. While each location contains its own specific flora and fauna, one resilient animal shows up in almost all of my hiking adventures: the spider.
Over the last few years, my hikes have become strenuous. I hike through challenging terrain and very often without following a concrete trail system. One thing I’ve noticed as I have left trails behind is that I end up walking into a lot of spiderwebs. They stick to my hat, hair, and glasses. They end up in my mouth. Sometimes accidentally bringing down webbing brings a spider with it.
And while I pride myself on being an animal lover, I can definitely say that it took some time for me to warm up to spiders. They are a bit creepy looking, they have set up small silk clotheslines throughout the forest, and their bite can be painful if you are unfortunate enough to be bitten. But after almost a decade of working at the Academy and attending eight Bug Fests, I think I’ve finally learned to appreciate our arachnid friends.
WHY SHOULD YOU LOVE SPIDERS?
They hold an important place in the food chain. Most notably, they kill and feed on insects such as flies and mosquitoes, helping to control insect populations. While a mosquito might cause an itchy bite and a fly might buzz around you while you try to eat, a spider will often avoid human interaction. Spiders are also a food source for birds, lizards, toads, wasps, and other spiders!
They can be really beautiful. Blues, greens, reds, pinks—almost any color you can think of can be found in spiders. The pinktoe tarantula looks as if it has freshly painted pink nails. The greenbottle blue and cobalt blue tarantulas both have beautiful blue colorations.
They have some amazing adaptations. Spiders have learned to live just about everywhere. They exist on nearly every continent and in almost every habitat, from deserts to aquatic environments. Spiders can hunt in a number of ways, from sitting and waiting in their orb webs to ambushing prey via a trapdoor in the ground (Ctenizidae) or spitting sticky silk at prey (Scytodidae). Some use camouflage to attack unsuspecting prey and others can dive underwater to capture a meal. Spiders have developed sophisticated defense mechanisms as well. Some tarantulas can kick off their tiny hairs when threatened. Others, including the golden orb-weaver, use chemicals to deter would-be attackers.
You can encounter spiders along almost any hiking trail in the warm months. But two Pennsylvania hiking destinations where you can almost always count on encountering spiders are Ringing Rocks County Park in Bucks County and Hickory Run State Park, located about a two-hour drive north of Philadelphia near White Haven, PA.
Both parks have large boulder fields. Hickory Run’s is almost 17 acres while Ringing Rocks’ is about 7 acres. If you look closely between the boulders, you can almost always find spiders. I have seen huge wolf spiders walking among the rocks at both parks. By streams, you may find fishing spiders with distinct stripes that run down their entire bodies.
You can also see spiders—live tarantulas, that is—at the Academy through May 30 at our special exhibit, Tarantulas: Alive and Up Close. Get the facts on why tarantulas are hairy, explore a tarantula burrow, try on costumes, and more. Join us Saturdays and Sundays at 11:45 a.m. for special tarantula talks to meet a keeper and get just a little bit closer to a live tarantula.
This article was adapted from the spring 2016 issue of Academy Frontiers.