Last Friday night, Heidi and I went to Cheyenne Mountain State Park, just south of Colorado Springs, to hear a presentation on the Western Prairie Rattlesnake. Besides learning a lot about that reptile, we learned that there was going to be a workshop on spider identification the next day (yesterday), from 1-5 PM. Heidi had to work at the zoo, so I took the bus as far as I could go and walked the last four miles to the park. It was well worth the effort.
This is the second year that Dr. Paula Cushing, Curator of Invertebrate Zoology at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, has held a spider workshop at Cheyenne Mountain State Park. Dr. Cushing seeks to promote a better public understanding of arachnids in general, and hopes to recruit volunteers to help with the Colorado Spider Survey, an ongoing project to document the distribution of the state’s spider fauna. She delivers a highly informative introduction to spider anatomy, diversity, and biology with liberal doses of humor.
Each participant in the workshop paid $5.00 for a handbook that includes a key to the spider families found in Colorado, and documents that essentially deputize us to collect spiders on certain public lands on behalf of the survey. But wait, there’s more. We also got a collecting kit that included a dry collecting vial plus two vials of alcohol into which we were to deposit our specimens.
Once we were coached in the best methods for collecting spiders, we dispersed from the Camper Services Building into the field to try our luck.
A brief shower earlier in the afternoon did not deter us from turning over rocks (where I found a gnaphosid spider that ultimately escaped), sweeping the tall grasses and herbs with sturdy nets, and beating the trees with beating sheets (note to self: Do not use a beating sheet on a windy day unless you want to be taken aloft somewhere). We collectively found at least eight (count ‘em, 8) families of spiders in only forty minutes of searching.
We took our catch back into the building and Dr. Cushing put some of the specimens under a microscope so we could better observe the different characters that define the various families of spiders. Here she is putting a juvenile Western Black Widow in view.
The preparation that went into this workshop was quite impressive. Dr. Cushing and one of her former students are to be commended for offering such a program. I would encourage other expert arachnologists to do similar public outreach. The benefits are many: You can change people’s attitudes, vanquish myths and stereotypes, and garner support for your research. People woefully underestimate the positive impact of spiders in the natural world, and the potential of spider silk and venom to advance technology and medicine respectively.
I will have to start taking vials with me again when I am in the field. Collecting spiders for research purposes helps increase our understanding of their species, and under most circumstances (cave and dune fauna excepted, perhaps) does not impact their populations.
Thanks also go to the administrators, naturalists, and volunteers at Cheyenne Mountain State Park for encouraging such informative activities as this workshop, and then participating in them as well.