Sunday, September 25, 2022

Book Review: Spiders of North America

It is “Spider Sunday” on this blog, so what better to post than a rave review of the newest spider identification resource, the Princeton Field Guide to Spiders of North America, by Sarah Rose. Yes, I wrote the foreword for this book, but I guarantee that this is an unbiased review. There is far more to recommend this book than my mere two cents at its beginning.

Spiders have faced an uphill battle in the widespread appreciation of these arachnids, in part due to few easily available, and easily affordable, resources for non-scientists. The most reasonably priced books are either outdated, full of errors such as mislabeled images, or both. Until now, the only current guides to spiders have been regional in nature (California and the Pacific coast, for example), or so expensive, and/or scientifically technical, as to discourage their purchase.

Finally, we have a true field guide, organized in a manner that respects the scientific terminology, and understands the limits of macrophotography, and facilitates the identification of many spiders by non-scholars.

One example of Rose’s innovative approaches is her color-coding of spider eyes. The eye arrangement of a given specimen is often key to its identification, but if you do not understand the jargon of “posterior median eyes,” or “anterior lateral eyes,” you are left spinning your wheels, if not throwing the book in the garbage. By associating the different pairs of eyes with different colors, it allows the user to make quick assessments of the creature they have in hand. The only drawback would come if you happen to be colorblind, and that is a consideration few, if any, publishers take into account.

Another way that the author organizes her book is by “guilds,” a term that in this case means the hunting lifestyle of the spider. Some spiders build two-dimensional sheet webs or orb webs, while others are “space web weavers” in three dimensions. Still others are ambush hunters or “ground active hunters.” This works well except maybe for mature male web-weaving spiders that leave their snares to look for mates, but the combinations of characteristics highlighted for each family of spiders overcomes those hurdles.

Each species entry in the book includes a range map, and verified state records. Our collective knowledge of spider distribution is relatively weak, and spiders excel at hitching rides on commerce and vehicles and other belongings, ending up far from their “normal” ranges, but here you have a good reference point for assessing the identity of most spiders you will encounter.

The images in the book are of living individuals, so all the colors and shapes are undistorted. Usually there is more than one image, to illustrate the dorsal (top) and ventral (underside) of the spider, and the color variations that the species might exhibit. Additionally, webs, egg sacs, and young spiders may be depicted, the better to demonstrate the full range of a species’ appearance and lifestyle.

The first part of this field guide provides an excellent overview of spider anatomy and biology, gives a brief and effective lesson in how spiders, and all organisms, are classified, and shares tips for observing spiders safely, ensuring that both you and the arachnid will be unharmed. Need to know the benefits of having spiders around? They’re in there. How do spiders fit into the larger picture of ecosystems? That information is also included. Did I mention there is an illustrated glossary in the back? Additional references are listed in the bibliography.

Before I end, I must offer an apology to all of you. This reference should have been available much sooner. I was the original author contracted to write this guide. It soon became apparent to me that I was not qualified to execute the project. Unfortunately, I procrastinated in disclosing that to the publisher. The least I could do was recommend a replacement, and I could not be more delighted that Sarah Rose agreed. This is a far better book than anything I could have written. If you have even a smidgen of curiosity about spiders, this reference will ignite it into a flame of passion. All the common species are in there, plus ones that you will see and say “Oh, I have got to find one of these!” Happy spider seeking, friends.

Tuesday, September 20, 2022

Fungus Party-y-y!

Sometimes, with luck, you stumble upon a wonderful circumstance of insect abundance. My partner, Heidi, did so this past Saturday afternoon, September 17, along a trail through Wyandotte County Lake Park, Kansas, USA. She happened to notice a thick mass of mushrooms at the base of a tree. It was literally crawling with insects.

Everybody on the dance floor!

The fungus in question may be a species of “oyster mushroom” in the genus Pleurotus, according to Ben Sikes at the University of Kansas, and with the Kansas Biological Survey. He was kind enough to offer an opinion on my photo of it on iNaturalist. At least some species are fit for human consumption, too, but please do not forage without expert guidance, at least initially. Your experiment in wild culinary arts could end abruptly and permanently if you do not know exactly which mycological fruiting bodies to avoid.

"Get down to it....get down to it...."

Insects, on the other hand, do not seem to care, especially the many varieties of beetles that are collectively known as fungus beetles. There are pleasing fungus beetles (family Erotylidae). There are handsome fungus beetles (Endomychidae), hairy fungus beetles (Mycetophagidae), tooth-necked fungus beetles (Derodontidae), silken fungus beetles (Cryptophagidae), polypore fungus beetles (Tetratomidae), cryptic fungus beetles (Archeocrypticidae), minute tree-fungus beetles (Ciidae), and several genera of darkling beetles (Tenebrionidae) that are found almost exclusively on or in fungi, including woody shelf fungi. I may be forgetting some….

Triplax thoracica, but there may have been another species with a dusky or black belly instead of an orange underside.

The most abundant insect on this particular mushroom cluster is probably a pleasing fungus beetle, Triplax thoracica. That genus, certainly, but that species apparently loves oyster mushrooms. It occurs across the eastern half of the U.S. and adjacent Canada. At only 3-5.6 millimeters in length, they are difficult to spot as individuals, but there were dozens flying in, flying out, and running about.

Uh, oh [abrupt, scratched record sound].

In a prehistoric analogy, Triplax are the herd of plant feeders. Sure enough, there were vicious carnivores prowling through the gills and over the caps of the mushrooms.

Sharp dresser, anyway.

A sleek, serpentine, black rove beetle with metallic blue-green elytra (wing covers) popped into view periodically. Meet Philonthus caeruleipennis, 12-15 millimeters long. Were it a vertebrate, it would no doubt be a weasel, mink, ferret, or other mustelid. It is transcontinental in Canada, but occurs only in the northeast quarter of the U.S. It also occurs in Europe.

Pull the fire alarm! Call 9-1-1!

The equivalent of Tyranosaurus rex in this micro-scenario would be the Brown Rove Beetle, Platydracus maculosus. Measuring 22-35 millimeters, it dwarfs its prey, which in this case was the Triplax fungus beetles.

Serial killer making mincemeat of partygoers.

By now, oblivious to the monsters among them, the Triplax party was becoming something of an orgy, with love trains of males following females. It was quite amusing.

Gettin' busy.

Some of the fungus beetles also had passengers in the form of phoretic mites. The mites, which are probably “mesostigs” in the order Mesostigmata, cause no harm to the beetles. Instead of being parasitic, the mites are hitchhikers, using the beetles as transport to a location where they can feed on insect eggs or other tiny prey.

Mites being a little voyeuristic....

Along with the beetles were pomace flies, family Drosophilidae. These are the “fruit flies” you see in your kitchen around overripe fruit, fermented beverages, and other foods. Drosophilids sare surprisingly diverse, and a good variety can be found around rotting fungi “in the wild.”

Pomace fly disappointed that the mushroom is not spoiling already....

The latecomer to the party was a worker Tennessee Spine-waisted Ant, Aphaenogaster tennesseensis. She was simply looking for dead or injured insects she could take back to her colony to feed her larval sisters.

"Just passing through!

At last, it was time for me to say farewell. Heidi had already progressed down the trail by about fifty yards.

"I'm blowin' this fruit stand!"

Now is a perfect time to go out looking for mushrooms and their associated insects. We left these mushrooms alone, but sometimes it is necessary to tear apart the fungus to find insects. It is best to do so over a white enamel pan, or some other kind of tray so that it catches the insects falling out. Be quick to grab the rove beetles before they take flight. If you do know your mushrooms, then bonus! You can take uninfested specimens to the kitchen instead of the lab. Enjoy your autumn no matter what you do.


Sources: Rhine, Lyndzee. 2020. A Pocket Guide to Common Kansas Mushrooms. Wichita: Great Plains Nature Center. 69 pp.
Evans, Arthur V. 2014. Beetles of Eastern North America. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. 560 pp.