An outing to the Westfield River in Hampshire County, Massachusetts last Sunday, September 6, included a stop at the Knightville Dam, where a unique arachnid awaited my discovery. There, among the goldenrods, asters, and ornamental black locust trees I found two triangle spiders, named for the shape of their web: a triangle that is essentially the sector of an orb web. The reduced size of the snare is just one puzzling feature of these amazing spiders.
Triangle spiders belong to the genus Hyptiotes in the obscure family Uloboridae. They are part of a larger group of arachnids called “cribellate spiders.” Cribellate spiders all share one feature in common: an extra spinning organ called a cribellum, located adjacent to the normal group of spinnerets. The cribellum issues a special type of silk that the spider literally “fluffs up” using a comb-like organ called a calamistrum, located on each hind leg.
Perhaps even more amazing than the “accessories” that uloborids have is what they lack. These are the only spiders in North America that do not have venom glands. That’s right, they are non-venomous spiders. So, you ask, how then do they subdue their prey? Great question for which I have not the foggiest answer. They probably do an extra-good job of wrapping their prey in silk, but not just any silk.
The cribellate silk threads in the part of the web designed to trap insects is not sticky like you would expect. Instead, it is tangled, and this is apparently just as effective as little droplets of glue.
Once it has erected its snare, the triangle spider sits on the thread near the tip of the twig or grass stem to which the apex of the triangle is secured. Depending on which book or article you believe, the spider either bridges a gap in this anchor thread, or simply perches there and reels in the slack line to render it taut. When a prey insect impacts the web, the spider then instantly releases the anchor thread, causing the web to rebound, further entangling the prey.
This feat of engineering and strength is performed by a very small animal. Even an adult female Hyptiotes is only 3-4 millimeters long. Males are 2-3 millimeters at maturity. Simply spotting one of these spiders is cause for self-congratulations for any naturalist.
There are four species of Hyptiotes (pronounced Hip-tee-OH-teez) in North America, three of which are chiefly western in their geographic distribution. The one shown in the image here is Hyptiotes cavatus, the sole eastern species.
Keep a sharp eye out for triangle spiders. The webs are mostly build about waist-high in weeds, on bridges and other structures, and twigs of trees and shrubs.