Look in the evergreens for signs of Adirondack arachnids in winter
By Zachary Matson
Spiders pass harsh Adirondack winters hunkered in a basement cellar or boathouse, maybe inside a mailbox. Some brave it tucked in on the underside of an evergreen branch.
“Look among the needles and look for spider silk, look under the bark,” said Linda Rayor, a spider expert at Cornell University. “You can find them.”
Some spider species complete their lifecycle before the onset of winter, but others overwinter as young adults, providing an important food source for birds, before gorging on spring bugs and pursuing uniquely-arachnid mating behaviors.
Spiders treat the crawling and flying insects of the forest like a Las Vegas buffet. Researchers estimate they consume around twice as much biomass worldwide as whales, and keep in check potentially damaging pests; they also will eat their own webs, recycling critical energy expended to spin them.
“Spiders are some of the dominant terrestrial predators everywhere on earth,” Rayor said.
When looking to relocate a web, spiders send out a strand of silk and travel on the wind, known as ballooning. Those strands crisscross trails and entangle unsuspecting hikers.
“It feels creepy but actually there is great biology behind it,” Rayor said. “It makes you not want to walk through one.”
Some spiders found in the Adirondacks, the family of fishing spiders, are covered in specialized hairs and can hunt bugs and even minnows from the water’s surface, diving underwater for minutes at a time.
Though rare in most animals, sexual cannibalism is common among arachnids.
Male dark fishing spiders, about half as long and one-tenth the size of the females, evolved to strengthen the odds of passing on their genes through self-sacrifice and encouraged cannibalism. After copulation, the male dies instantly and is consumed by their mate. The female thereby improves the number, size and survival of offspring, ingesting nutrients important to egg development.
Spiders are far more prevalent on the landscape than most people realize—and far less threatening to humans than most people suspect. Two types of yellow sac spiders common in New York are poisonous to humans. They’re about ¼ to ½ inches long, yellow, white or even greenish with eight eyes arranged in two horizontal rows, according to the University of California Davis’ Bohart Museum of Entomology.
Rayor suggested holding a light at eye-level and shining it on the ground or in the trees during a summer night. The light will likely reflect off the specialized tissue of tiny wolf spider eyes.
“It’s like little stars twinkling at you,” Rayor said.