Strange spiders.—The house-spider.—How they capture their prey.—How they fight.—Fight between a wasp and a spider.—The spider has its legs cut off, and is carried away.—Burrow spider watching for its prey.
Now I must pause a little in that great jungle, and recount to you some of the queer things which I have seen among the spiders—the burrowing spiders, the house-spiders, the wall-spiders, and the spiders which weave their big and far-spreading webs among the trees of the forest or the tall grass of the open fields. I hope you will feel as interested as I did when you learn how smart many of them are.
There are a very great variety of spiders in the country I have explored. Some are of queer shape. Each species has its peculiar habits. I often wish I had devoted more of my time to the study of their habits, and to ascertaining the way in which they catch their prey; but what I have observed I will relate to you. I will speak to you first of the house-spiders, and what I saw of them.
In many of the little huts where I lived, the walls of which were made of the bark of trees, there were always several house-spiders, which I took good care not to kill, for they were seemingly inoffensive, only they were great enemies to the cockroaches, insects, and flies. Sometimes in the evening, when I laid down on my acoco (bed of sticks), by the light of a torch my eyes would rest upon the wall, and I would see emerging from some crack a queer-looking gray spider, and now and then cockroaches, which swarm in the African huts, or some other kind of insect, would come out on the walls. Then the spider would slyly advance toward the insect, taking great care to approach it from behind, in order not to be seen by the unsuspecting victim, with which it is soon to engage in a deadly struggle, for the spider is brave and voracious, and is not to be easily frightened by the size of its antagonist.
These house-spiders are of a dull gray, which color assists in concealing its approach. After leaving its lair and getting a good position, it remains perfectly rigid and motionless, often for half an hour, waiting for some unlucky cockroach to pass by. At last the cockroach rushes past. In an instant the spider, with great impetuosity, pounces upon him. Then ensues a tug and a battle which is of great interest—a conflict for life on the part of the cockroach, a combat for food on the part of the spider, which for the time seems more voracious and ferocious than a tiger or leopard. The battle is often prolonged for more than half an hour. The great black African cockroach grows to a large size, and is a very strong and formidable opponent for the spider. The latter, after pouncing on its victim, fastens on its back, and, to prevent being borne off, clings with two of his hairy hind legs, which seem to have little hooks, to the floor or to the wall. All the cockroach's endeavors and frantic exertions are to escape. He tugs and jerks, and generally succeeds at first in dragging its enemy off for some distance. The desperate struggle goes on, the spider using all its power and strength. It manages again to get a hold with its feet. At last it succeeds in fastening its head on the body of the cockroach, and begins sucking away at the juices of the latter, which, at the pain of the first bite, makes the greatest efforts to escape, for it knows that the deadly struggle has begun. Then there would be a tremendous fight. I sometimes thought the cockroach would escape, both being exhausted. Then would come a pause. Presently the struggle would recommence, the spider sucking away all the time, and the poor cockroach at last succumbing, whereupon his enemy drags off the body to some corner or hiding-place where it can be devoured at leisure.
Once in the daytime, a few days after seeing the fight I have been describing to you, I saw the same spider, for I knew its place of hiding, come out after an insect. It was creeping slowly toward its prey, when a wasp—one of those beautiful, long-legged, and slender wasps, with striped bodies, which are so common here—came to attack the spider. Quickly she flew over the spider, her long legs hanging down and plying between the legs of the poor spider, who was now in as bad a plight as the cockroach was a few days before. In this latter case, cunning instead of strength was to be used.
The wasp kept flying above the spider, moving her long legs with great rapidity between the legs of the spider, while her head was touching that of her opponent, and giving a bite from time to time. Then the spider tried to run away, but could not, for the long legs of the wasp moved between his legs in a backward sort of a way, which prevented the spider from advancing. The wasp all the time was hovering above the spider with very quick motions, her legs moving so fast that I could not see all their movements. Suddenly the wasp turned round, and put her head down close to the right front leg of the spider, to which it gave one or two bits, just where it is joined to the body, and the leg dropped down; then she worked away at the head for a few seconds, then again turned round and gave a bite or two to the leg next to the one that had just been cut, and this dropped down also. I had never seen anything fly so fast. At last the poor spider seemed perfectly stunned; he could hardly move. I considered the fight over, and that the wasp was the victor. Another leg dropped down, and then another, all being cut just where they are attached to the body, till at last they were all cut down. When the last hind leg dropped, the wasp seized the body of the spider, and flew away outside of my little hut to devour it.
I missed my spider very much afterwards, and the cockroaches had their own way for a few days without fear of being devoured, till another house-spider made its appearance.
In one of my little huts there were other species of spider besides the one I have spoken to you about, whose little webs would be built in places where they would be most apt to entangle the flies. After these had been caught, the spider would come, and even when only a musquito had been taken, it would come, but it would give only one or two sucks, and then would go away. You will agree that there must be very little to suck out of a musquito that has not been feeding on a human being.
In the tall grass which sometimes grows round the village, or in the large open spaces where trees have been cut down, there is found a tremendous big bright yellow and black spider, whose web spreads over a space of several feet, and so thick and strong is it that, when I have got entangled in one, I could certainly feel a slight impediment to my walk, or the moving of my arm. The threads of the web are yellow, the same color as one part of the spider. This spider belongs probably to the genus Mygale. Some of them grow to be of immense size; I have frequently seen them with a body as large as a sparrow's egg.
Happily, the bite of this spider is not dangerous, for one day, as I was pursuing a bird and was in the midst of a lot of grass, the blades of which stuck to my skin and cut me like a razor, and I was watching and pursuing the bird in order not to lose sight of it, I got entangled in one of these big webs—by far the biggest web built by any spider I have ever heard of. I looked round to see and get out of the spider's way, but before I was aware I got a bite which was almost as painful as the sting of a scorpion. In my fright I tumbled down. I had no ammonia with me, consequently I returned at once to the village, where I had some, but by the time I reached home I felt no ill effect, the pain having left me a few minutes after the bite.
These big spiders are said by the natives to make these large, spreading webs in order to catch little birds, the blood of which they suck. I never saw a bird caught, nor even any remains of feathers in the web, but from the strength of the web I am certain that many little birds, if once caught, could not get out, and that this big spider is fully equal to mastering little birds, for its strength must be very great if it is as strong in proportion to its size as other spiders are.
At any rate, if birds are caught in their webs, it must be very seldom. But if their webs do not catch birds, they are tremendous traps for flies, wasps, beetles, and insects of all kinds; for I have never long watched one of them without seeing some living thing of one kind or another caught, and then immediately the big, long-legged spider would come swiftly and suck the blood of the victim; two or three suckings would finish up a common black fly. They are very voracious, and attack the prey with great vigor.
They must like the powerful sun, for many of their webs are built in the open spaces where Master Sol has his own way. The rain can not incommode them as he does us.
When one of these webs is finished it will remain perfect a long time; sometimes it will stand for months before the owner begins to make another.
One day in the forest I spied not far from the ground, just by an old dead tree, a little bit of a long-legged spider waging a terrible conflict with a caterpillar, which, without exaggeration, must have been at least thirty or forty times larger than the body of the little, slender, and long-legged spider. I immediately took from my pocket my magnifying-glass, in order to see better; then saw, about four inches from the ground, spreading from under the dead branch of the tree, several threads of a web which hung down, embracing a space of four or five inches, and ending in one thread as it came near the caterpillar. That single thread was entangled in the hair of the caterpillar and round its neck, and the caterpillar hung by it. The end of his body scarcely touched the ground. Then there was a desperate struggle. I suppose the caterpillar, before being caught, was down on the ground quietly eating some leaves, and the spider dropped down upon it like a wild beast would pounce upon its prey.
I lay flat on the ground to look at the conflict. This time the long legs of the spider were of the same use to it as were those of the wasp in the other fight I have related.
For a long while there was a great struggle, the caterpillar shaking and turning round and round as it hung by that single thread; often its body would twist into a circle, the end touching the head, when suddenly, at one of these twists, the spider, by some dexterous movements, spun one of its threads round the caterpillar, binding the tail to the head. The caterpillar, by a desperate effort, broke the thread, and freed the lower part of its body. The spider was so small that I had to use the magnifying-glass all the time in order to watch its movements. At first the attention of the spider was entirely engaged in securing its prey. When the caterpillar was struggling hard to disentangle itself, it would come down and spin thread after thread round the hairy body of its victim, and then unite them to the single thread.
Now and then, with its pincers, which appeared through the magnifying-glass to be very large in comparison with the size of the body, it would try to cut the large pincers of the caterpillar. The end of its long legs, as they came round the head and eyes of the cater-pillar, seemed to annoy it terribly, to judge by the struggles of the worm. At last the spider succeeded in seizing the base of the right pincer of the caterpillar, and tried to cut it, but in vain. In less than fifteen seconds it returned to the task, and went at the left pincer, but with apparently no better success. Then, after a while, its attacks were directed to a spot between the pincers. He kept at it and kept at it, apparently sucking the blood, till finally, after thirty-seven minutes of deadly conflict, the caterpillar, a mammoth in comparison with the size of the spider, hung dead. Then the spider finished sucking the blood of its victim. While the spider was carrying on this deadly combat, it did not mind me when I touched its web with a little stick: it would just ascend the single thread by which it was suspended, and then, within a few seconds, would return to the fight. After the caterpillar had been killed, when I touched the web it would go up, and remain there for a long time—three or four minutes—before it came down. Finally I took hold of the caterpillar; down came the spider, and with him part of his web. The spider ran along the ground for a few inches, then suddenly rolled itself into a ball and lay apparently dead, the legs being twisted round the body. It appeared to me that the spider thought a wasp was going to attack it, and thus protected itself.
After a little while I came to look at the poor dead caterpillar, and saw a few ants hard at work carrying it off somewhere to be devoured.
Among the great many species of spiders there are some which are very curious. Among the most remarkable are those which burrow holes in the ground and live in them. These ground-spiders are short, and have powerful fangs and legs.
Several species of spiders have short legs, and flat, oval bodies, surrounded by pointed spurs, looking, when taken from their webs, more like bugs than veritable spiders.
The cave in which the burrow spiders live is but a few inches long, built in the shape of a tube, from the opening of which they watch for their prey. The interior of the burrow is like felt, and is so arranged that it forms a tunnel that prevents the earth from falling in.
Some of the burrow spiders are called trap-door spiders, on account of the curious way in which the entrance of their abode is guarded. A trap-door closes the entrance. This door is made of the same material as the interior of the tube, to which it is attached by a kind of hinge, by which it falls squarely upon it. This trap-door to made to protect the spider from its enemies, among which are wasps and many species of ants. These latter sometimes make short work of a spider.
This door is a marvel; the outside is generally covered with earth similar in color to the ground by which it is surrounded, thus rendering it difficult to find the burrow.
Trap-door spiders are found in many parts of the world. But many species of spiders live in burrows that have no doors.
Some of these burrow spiders go out at night as well as in the daytime, but they hardly ever move far from their burrows. I have often seen them watching from the entrance of their caves for prey. How queer they look! They must have a wonderful sense of hearing, for at the least noise they run back inside of their bur-rows. They seem to know when the noise does not come from an enemy, but from some insect upon which they intend to prey. One day one of these burrow spiders was watching for its food, when suddenly it pounced upon a big caterpillar which had made its appearance, and, after a desperate struggle, the poor caterpillar was carried into the burrow, though still alive.
After half an hour I carefully demolished the burrow, and found the spider at the bottom; the caterpillar was partly devoured, and I saw the remains of legs, wings, and heads of insects which had been captured and eaten up. I took the spider out; it seemed stupefied; and walked to and fro as if it did not know where to go.
When once a spider has built its burrow it dwells in it for a long time. These burrows are built in such a manner that when it rains the water can not get in.
Have you ever thought, when looking at the web of a spider, what an admirable piece of work it is, and how this thread is manufactured? No lace is more beautifully worked. The thread is formed by a semi-liquid secretion, which comes out, at the will of the spider, through minute apertures, and which hardens into a thread by contact with the atmosphere.
How strange that is!
Spiders must have a great amount of knowledge, and are, no doubt, good barometers, for when a storm is impending they never will build or mend a web. There is a good reason for their not being extravagant in the use of their silk, for, although they can use at their will the secretion from which the thread is made, it requires time to reproduce it; so when you see a spider spinning new webs, it is a sign of fine weather coming.
If you look closely at the web of a spider, you will surely be surprised at their wonderful skill. First a network of strong threads is built; these are the main beams, and between them the net made of smaller thread is spun. These webs are exceedingly elastic, for they have to resist the power of the wind. When the web has been long built, and has become stretched, they will sometimes go and fetch a little piece of wood, which they hang by a thread, and haul it to a spot where they think it will steady their structure.
The threads of spiders are produced from an organ called the "spinneret," which is placed at the extremity of the body. The spinnerets are arranged in pairs, and are four, six, or eight in number.
The spider generally works at its web with its head down, lowering itself by its thread. The whole is worked by the sense of touch, the threads being guided by one of the hind legs. If you take the trouble to watch a spider working, you will see it work just as I have described.
The semi-liquid secretion is forced out through very small apertures, which may be called miniature tubes; they look very much like very minute hairs. These tubes cover the spinnerets, which are externally like little rounded projections, but their shape is not always the same. The threads become quite strong, for after leaving the tubes they are united together, and hence are much stronger than if the thread was composed of a single strand.