Nature in Your Backyard: The Functional Decorator

The other day I went onto my front porch to admire my duplex neighbors’ Christmas lights. They were the first up on our block and the single string of big lights had a hazy 90’s glow about them. The brightness of the light takes the place of our porch light, but still serves the security purpose of night-time visibility with seasonal grace. I do enjoy functional decorations.

When I turned to walk back inside, I saw the single string of another functional decorator in my neighborhood. Parked right between a goal post of two azalea branches was the barely-visible Cyclosa turbinata, a trashline orbweaver. Okay, so the name doesn’t bring up the best visual, but it, while incredibly accurate, doesn’t begin to do justice to her craft and allure. Allow me to explain.

This spider is small; about the size of my pinky nail, and as an orbweaver that just sits in its web all day, it’s very vulnerable to wasp attacks.  Wasps and spiders are bitter enemies. They have epic battles leading to casualties on each side, but the wasps usually come out on top. The war, though, has elicited a weird evolutionary arms race. Some spiders use extra silk as a barrier against wasp attack; ichneumon wasp larvae use chemicals for spider mind control; the Golden wheel spider tucks into a ball and rolls down the sandy hills of Namibia. The stakes are high and they’re willing to do anything to get ahead.

The trashline orbweaver spider takes the “Where’s Waldo?” approach. It builds replicas of itself out of eaten prey and lines them down the center of the web. Then it tucks itself right in the middle of the web, essentially hiding in plain sight. (We could talk about how gross it is to have a decoration of carcasses lining one’s house, but before you get on your high horse, think about taxidermy, seashells, Halloween, and leather.) And here’s the thing: it works. Wasps have been shown to not be able to tell the difference between the spider and the decoys. The web decoration saves its life. A spider that uses camouflage to win battles; very Peeta from Hunger Games.

Nichols_Cyclosa_NC_2013 (2 of 4)_800

This is why I don’t like the name “trashline” orbweaver. The name implies that the line is something worthless; waste that should be taken out because it’s no longer useful. But in reality, the “trash” is its most valuable possession. It’s the only resource it has to keep the odds slightly in its favor.

I’d like to make a motion for a new name. Something that can give the spider the respect it deserves for being so clever and resourceful. A name that can show how bold it is to hide in the most predictable place without being found. Something that honors its functional decoration. Any ideas?

CBrown_headshotChristine Brown is a graduate student at NC State, working with Dr. Nick Haddad. She has the dream job of a 5-year-old: wandering around beautiful meadows to catch spiders. As a conservationist, she studies spiders to find out if wildlife corridors can save threatened predators.

By |2016-11-22T13:47:16-05:00December 12th, 2013|

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Christine Brown is a graduate student at NC State, working with Dr. Nick Haddad. She has the dream job of a 5-year-old: wandering around beautiful meadows to catch spiders. As a conservationist, she studies spiders to find out if wildlife corridors can save threatened predators.

3 Comments

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    Matt Bertone December 12, 2013 at 10:20 am - Reply

    Great post Christine! I love these types of spiders. Here is a photo of the related genus (formerly in Cyclosa) Allocyclosa bifurca in FL which also use the “trash technique”: http://flic.kr/p/f4uQZA

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    Mattstodon December 13, 2013 at 9:29 am - Reply

    The recycling bandits!

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    JohnR January 6, 2014 at 4:20 pm - Reply

    These are nifty little buggers, all right. This summer I ran into my first Uloborus (plumipes?) which I was delighted to see does much the same thing and presumably for the same reasons. Between the bizarre shape and legs of the spider, and the posture in line with the trash line in the web, it was not easy to pick out the spider once she had settled in and was establishing her decorations. Unfortunately for both of us, her time was limited – she’d just managed to get a nice line going when a hungry Agelenopsis moved in next to her web and had her over for dinner. She became a trash item down in the funnel; sort of ironic.

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