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The Wild Side

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Published on: Apr. 2, 1996

Last revision: Oct. 21, 2010

Some friends of mine once played a joke on me that was fun. They wanted to know if I could smell spiders? They said they could.

"No you can't," I said.

"OK, we'll show you." It was dark outside; a beautiful summer night. Both friends had flashlights and they gave me one. We walked into the backyard with no light around except our flashlight beams.

Looking at each other with smiles on their faces, they inhaled the night air deeply, walked away from me and shined their lights around the perimeter of the yard. Both walked to different spots in the yard.

"I smell one." "So do I," each claimed.

I rushed to the one nearest me and shined my light to see a funnel web spider right where he said it was. I stared but I couldn't believe that he actually smelled it out. I went to the other friend; he too had a spider. How did they do it? After watching them locate spiders in this same fashion several times, I insisted they tell me the truth.

Scan the edge of your yard or meadow, where the grass is usually the tallest, with your flashlight, they said. Watch for tiny reflections. Those are spider eyes, green or white. You may have to practice with your light for a few minutes. Concentrate. Soon you'll be able to "smell" spiders, and show friends your strange new talent.

What kind of critters are spiders? They are creepy and they are crawly. They bug you but they are not bugs.

Bugs, or insects, are different than spiders. Insects have antennae, three body parts and six legs. Spiders have no antennae, only two body parts and eight legs. Maybe that's why, and how, they get so many insects to eat ... two more legs.

Spiders also have extra tools called spinnerets. These three small fingerlike gadgets are where the spider spins silk. The silk is produced in as many as five glands as a liquid protein that passes out the end of the abdomen through the spinnerets and turns into a solid immediately upon contact with the air.

The spider's silk thread is made up of hundreds of smaller threads that stick together as they leave the spinnerets. Even though all spiders make silk, they don't all use it for making webs.

Some young spiders use silk to help them travel on the wind. This behavior is called ballooning and the silk threads used are called gossamers. The spiderlings climb to the tops of grass, tree branches or other tall objects. Then they release strands of silk into the wind until the gossamers are long enough to catch the wind and pull the spiderlings off into the air.

With this trick, spiderlings can fly without wings and are carried into new areas quickly. This allows them to spread out and avoid competing with brothers and sisters. Ballooning is an ingenious way to increase survival chances and to travel into new areas. If you're not a spiderling, don't try this method of flight at home.

Sensational Spiders

  • Scientists have identified more than 37,000 species of spiders around the world.
  • More than 300 species of spiders live in Missouri.
  • Spider silk is the strongest natural fiber known.
  • The circular threads on a web are sticky; the straight threads are not.
  • Spiders can fly for many miles by "ballooning."
  • All spiders have venom, that's how they catch food. But only two Missouri spiders - the black widow and the brown recluse - are dangerous to people.

Make Your Own FLoating Spiderling

You will need:

one 12- x 12-inch square of cloth (old sheet material works well)

two 24-inch lengths of thin kite string or thread

one large wooden or plastic bead (1/2- to 3/4-inch diameter)

one small wooden or plastic bead (1/4- to 1/2-inch diameter)

four seven-inch lengths of florist wire or other thin wire

*one four-inch length of pipe cleaner wire.

Make the gossamer "parachute" by tying each end of the kite string to one of the corners of the 12 x 12 cloth. Make a small hole in the cloth at each corner, thread the string through and tie it in a knot. The string will form a loose "X" across the cloth when you are finished.

To make the body of the spider, thread the large bead onto the bundle of four florist wires, pushing it to the middle of the wires. Put the small bead on to the wires next by threading each end of the wire through opposite ends of the bead. Pull the wires tightly through so that the two beads are drawn together. When done correctly, these will form the legs when spread apart and formed into place.

To attach the parachute to the body, thread the pipe cleaner through the large bead, then place the two loops of string on to the pipe cleaner loop. Twist the pipe cleaner wires together to close the loop. Toss your spiderling into the air on a windy day and watch it fly.

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