Life on eight legs

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Clearing out the back garden I came across this hairy orange monster with the most delightful yellow eyebrows. Assuming I’d discovered a new species I checked the reference books only to find I’d been beaten to it many times.

Although having caused some confusion over the years as to exactly who and what this colourful arachnid is, the backroom boys and girls have now decided she’s just a humble huntsman, but obviously from the la-de-da end of town.

We don’t usually associate colour with spiders, they’re just those drab brownish scuttling critters we occasionally see on the bathroom wall or in the webbed corner of a window frame. There are, in fact, hundreds of species around Melbourne in a whole range of colours but there are a couple of good reasons why we don’t often see them.

For example, being smarter than the average bear, most brightly-hued eight-leggeds dwell in an environment similar to their own colour, so trying to spot a yellow spider on a buttercup for instance, is not easy (particularly if they’re only the size of your little fingernail).

Another feature, which scientists have only recently established as fact, is that some spiders, like the common crab (or flower) spider, which roams your garden and mine, can actually change its colour to suit its background (a bit like Adam Treloar changing from a Collingwood to a Bulldog’s jumper, but not as controversial).

There is another group of colourful spiders we rarely see, they are the shy brigade, only venturing out in the dead of night. There is something of a mystery here – why would such exotically beautiful creatures hide away and only emerge in total darkness when the beauty of their brilliant bodies cannot be appreciated? It doesn’t make sense, or does it?

Although most spider species seek out their prey by smell, some can actually see in the dark and those, such as the clever little net-throwing spider, have eyesight an astonishing 2000 times as good as mine, and probably yours. Mind you, having eight eyes rather than our measly two is a good start.

If you want to see the beauty of the orb weavers in your garden, even with your torch, you’ll probably end up suffering the indignity of flailing around like a frog in a sock after walking into one of their webs.   

This, of course, will give you the heebie jeebies, as does the thought of the web’s gigantic owner lurking somewhere nearby, but remember, be strong. These spiders are not aggressive, nor is their venom toxic to humans. Besides, you’re a nature lover, and when caught in the torch beam the owner of that web will hold you in awe.   

In fact, if you want to see these creatures there’s no real alternative. Usually, bright orange with strong patterns of yellow and white, their beauty is often only discovered by accident and is shrouded away in the daylight hours in some chink in the chimney or convenient knothole in your apple tree.

Also in your garden, or the local park, you’ll find leaf-curling spiders, equally spaced and guarding their own small piece of territory, each having chosen an appropriately pliable dead leaf to carefully curl into a homely tunnel.

Hanging innocently on an unobtrusive web we could be forgiven for thinking it was just another dead leaf, albeit a rather sculptural one. The only give away is the sight of spindly legs which appear at the very edge of the lower opening, like hair in an old man’s nostril, and unless we fluke a sighting at night in the torch beam, we might never know the beauty of this creature’s gaudily bulging succulent body.

Like many other species, the leaf-curler reacts to any unsuspecting insect’s tell-tale tug on a trip wire and with a speed almost impossible to see, or believe, out it shoots and SOCK! POW! BAM! Well, more bite, wrap and suck, but the end is the same.

Anyway, take a torch out tonight and with a little patience, who knows what surprises await. Put a little colour in your (night) life.

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