Daddy longlegs are the spiders we run across the most often, right? Think again.
How many body parts does a spider have? Two. A “head” (called a cephalothorax) and an abdomen (where that sticky silk comes from). How many body parts does a daddy longlegs have? One. So, these animals aren’t even spiders. Daddy longlegs are one of many animals called opilionids (oo-pill-ee-OH-nidz). They are in the same animal class as spiders (Arachnida), and they all have long legs so they look like spiders—but they’re a separate order.
Opilionids aren’t dangerous to humans, but their predators had better watch out. Scientist Dr. Thomas Eisner discovered that a daddy longlegs carries toxin in its armpits. His research began one day when travelling through Texas. He picked up a daddy longlegs and smelled it— that’s right, his nose was his scientific instrument. He observed an odd smell so he carted the creature back to his motel room and studied it. The smell was a toxic chemical called benzoquinone (say BEN-zo-qwi-NO-ne). So of course, Dr. Eisner wanted to know more about that!
The chemical is toxic when it is a gas or a liquid, but not when it is a solid. On the side of the animal’s body–basically in its armpit–Dr. Eisner found a sac-like gland. In that gland? Solid benzoquinone.
When a predator such as an ant threatens the daddy longlegs, he spits up a drop of gut juice. That liquid travels down a groove from his mouth to the gland. In less than a second, he dissolves a bit of that benzoquinone into the liquid and creates toxic ammunition. You know those two long legs daddy longlegs use as feelers? He dips the tip of one of them into the toxic drop then slaps it on his predator.
Take that you scary ant! They flee.
The opilionid can reload his feelers up to thirty times from one toxic drop. When his ammo runs low, all he needs to do is drink water and spit again. Other types of opilionids skip the feelers and just let the liquid ooze out around their body, creating a super toxic safety shield.
What other secrets might opilionids be hiding? Not many people study them, so who knows?!? Maybe you will sniff out a discovery!
Some bugs litter. Some pass gas. Some bugs throw their poop! Discover ten of the rudest, crudest bugs around. Full of scientific facts, humor and just the right amount of yuck, Heather L. Montgomery's How Rude! features a countdown of the top 10 bad bugs who just won't mind their manners. One part illustration and one part photography, How Rude! is hilarious, informative, and seriously gross!
MLA 8 Citation
Montgomery, Heather L. "Toxic Armpits." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 6 Dec. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/ Toxic-Armpits.
When I was about 10 years old, I lived in a small town on a prairie. I had to walk to and from school each day taking a short cut through our dark, crowded garage. This was fine until the spiders set up home in each corner of the garage-door opening, spinning huge blobs of flimsy webs, hanging there, ready to drop on my head or down my back. I ran under them to the safety of the alley. They feasted on Minnesota’s mosquitoes, growing to what I imagined to be tennis ball-sized bodies with red and yellow stripes, long, thick hairy legs, and large bulb-like eyes. My brother and sister thought they were monsters; we shudder when we remember them.
But actually they were wolf spiders because like wolves, they’re predators. They lie in wait for prey to come close. Then they chase and pounce on it, stinging it with their venom that dissolves the organs so the spider can suck up the nourishment.
In March of 2012, wolf spiders made news in Wagga Wagga, Australia, a town of 50,000 a few hours south of Sydney, Australia’s largest city. Some say due to climate change, it rained much more than usual, causing the river, peacefully flowing through the town, to flood the fields. It flooded the hibernation holes of the wolf spiders, which they had dug a few months earlier in the sun-baked ground and lined with silk, ready for the coming winter. The floodwaters woke up the spiders, which fled for higher ground, bushes, trees, houses, poles, any high places. As more than a million spiders ran they trailed behind “drag lines” of silk that caught the wind lifting some of them through the air. Countless thin trails of silk covered the bushes and fields, creating a blanket of web, looking like snow. No one had seen anything like it. When I read it about it, I knew instantly that this was the spider that terrorized me as a child. Wolf spiders are found all over the world, in Minnesota and Australia.
I believe that this was a small whisper from the earth about what is happening to it. If this damage in Wagga Wagga was caused by climate change, imagine the invasions and changes that may yet come. The next even could be a shout.
MLA 8 Citation
Marx, Trish. "The Invasion of the Wolf Spiders." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 6 Oct. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/the-invasion-of-the-wolf-spiders.
celebrating nature, inspiring good writing
This summer, you may be able to observe an amazing event in nature. You can watch a small animal build a structure much bigger than itself, using materials from inside its own body!
This is what happens when a spider spins a web. Inside a spider are glands that can produce seven different kinds of silk. The silk comes out of little spigots, called spinnerets, at the rear of the spider's body.
A strand of spider silk is stronger than a similar strand of steel, and spiders use this amazing material in many ways. If they catch an insect, they may wrap it in silk, to eat later. Female spiders enclose their eggs in a silken sac to protect them. And some spiders—almost always females—make webs that are death traps for insects.
Webs can be in the shape of funnels, sheets, or domes, but the best-known are called orb webs. From an orb web's center, lines of silk radiate out in all directions, like the spokes of a bicycle wheel. After building this basic structure, a spider goes round and round, laying down ever-bigger circles of silk. Some of the silk threads have sticky glue to catch a moth or other prey. A spider can create this whole complex design in an hour or less.
When an orb web is complete, some kinds of spiders wait right in the center. Others hide at an edge. Either way, the builder keeps a front leg in touch with the web. Vibrations from the threads tell a spider whether prey has been caught.
Spiders often have to repair their webs, and some species routinely build a new one every day. And they recycle! They eat most of their old web. After digestion, it becomes brand new silk for the next construction job.
You may be able to watch a spider on the job. Look for webs in a field, park, or backyard. Also look for webs near doors, windows, or on a porch. The nighttime lights from such places attract night-flying insects, and spiders often build webs there. They may or may not be orb webs, but watching any kind of spider at work on its silken insect-trap can be fascinating fun.
And remember: the spider wants nothing to do with you. It is just trying to stay safe and catch some food.
This video was shot by Ingrid Taylor, " I shot this a few minutes after the rain subsided, when the City of Spiders outside the door came to life. Mass web-building and repair going on..." wikimedia commons
.To learn more about the lives of spiders, and see spectacular realistic illustrations, see Laurence Pringle's book:
MLA 8 Citation
Pringle, Laurence. "Watch a Webmaster at Work!" Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think
Tank, 14 June 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/