John Winkelman

John Winkelman

A few weeks ago, the state Department of Conservation invited folks to face their fears with a free presentation at Powder Valley Nature Center on the harmlessness and habitats of snakes in Missouri.

So why not try it again? Maybe up the ante with a walking tour?

On Friday, Oct. 18, David Bruns will talk about the “Little Wolves of Missouri,” but it’s not about wild canines. The presentation subject is much scarier to some people. There are 40 species of wolf spiders in the state, and although they are harmless to humans, they can cause even more irrational reactions than snakes.

In addition to the program and photos to allay concerns about human and spider interactions at 7 p.m., the audience will be invited to a guided, outdoor tour around the nature center to find spiders in the darkness. Those who want to join the nighttime excursion should bring a headlamp and wear appropriate shoes.

Wolf spiders are unique among arachnids because they can be found at night by shining light into their reflective eyes, which appear to twinkle in the grass. Finding them should be pretty easy too, because there could be more than 10,000 of them on every acre of suitable habitat.

If their abundance and glowing eyes don’t seem scary enough, the closeup photos of wolf spiders reveal that they actually have eight eyes. Two large eyes on top keep a look out for predators, while two large eyes are positioned forward for hunting.

They don’t have the spider characteristic that is most likely to cause a human freak out. Rather than spinning webs to snare unsuspecting insects, they stalk and pounce on their prey. Their name is associated with their gray coloration, furry appearance and nocturnal habits.

They are very good hunters, eating thousands of insects each year. Multiply that by the number of spiders per acre mentioned above, and you are eliminating a lot of other bugs. Spiders are also an important food source for birds, mice, reptiles and amphibians.

Wolf spiders are not the only arachnids in Missouri. In the woods, you could encounter an additional 20,000 spiders per acre, but in an open grassland there could be more than 2.5 million spiders, mites, ticks and others per acre. Spiders eat more insects than birds and bats combined.

Very few people are bitten by spiders in the U.S. and only two types are potentially harmful. Brown recluse and black widow spiders can cause severe pain and infection, but deaths are rare from the black widow bite, and no deaths have been proven to be caused by a brown recluse.

Most spiders are not capable of piercing human skin with their bites. Even though they do all inject venom, their bites may only cause a discoloration, irritation or swelling, just like a mosquito bite. By the way, spiders do eat many mosquitoes, which are capable of transmitting deadly diseases to humans.

Even though wolf spiders don’t use their silk-making ability to spin webs, they do use it for creating an egg sack or as a trail marker trying to attract a mate. It’s the harmless orb weavers and garden spiders that spin the webs that cause most people to overreact to something that is almost totally harmless.

Spider webs are built with liquid silk that solidifies into tiny strands that are stronger than steel threads of the same weight. Baby spiders also use the threads to travel on wind currents.

Missouri does have tarantula-sized spiders, but they are hard to find. They most often inhabit dry, rocky glade areas and live in holes in the ground. They are shy and non-aggressive, preferring to avoid human interaction.  

The free program, “Tracking Missouri’s Wolf Spiders,” will begin at 7 p.m. Oct. 18. Advance online registration is required at short.mdc.mo.gov/Zac. Powder Valley Conservation Nature Center is at 11715 Cragwold Road in Kirkwood, near I-44 and I-270 in south St. Louis County.

John J. Winkelman is community engagement manager at Mercy Hospital Jefferson. If you have news for the Leader’s Outdoor News page, e-mail ogmjohnw@aol.com and you can follow John on Twitter at @johnjwink99.

 

 

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