Toward a Spider Free Existence

Now I’m nevous. What I’m doing can’t be completely legal. I’m walking around the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, and I’m carrying what might be an invasive species in my backpack. It’s a spider, and in addition to being a non-native species, it might be deadly. And the spider is alive.

Last night my wife, Sandra, encountered a big brown spider – about a two inch legspan – in our son’s bedroom. In many ways, Sandra is braver than I am. And while I normally dispatch bugs that find their way into the house, I wasn’t home. She was a mother hen protecting her children. She scooped up a spider the size of a Buick and secured it in a plastic container.

Zoropsis Spinimana aka: Big Hairy Spider

On my arrival home Sandra told me about the big spider she had captured. I immediately went to my creepy place. I don’t like spiders at all. (I published a short story in which a spider causes some small disaster to an internet company, titled Their Constant Breathing for Kindle, and for Nook ) And of course I assumed that it was dangerous. Brown recluse spiders are not supposed to live this far West, but I’m sure it could happen. I held the container and looked at the invader. It was brown, hairy, long-legged – all traits of spiders that I disliked – it had angular markings on its thorax and abdomen, and had two large-ish pincer-looking structures hanging near its mouth.

I started looking at spider taxonomies online. There are a lot of spider pictures on the web. (ha-ha, I wasn’t even trying) I ruled out Brown Recluse – the legs weren’t translucent and there was no violin shape on its back. That was a relief. After some more searcing, I had the thing narrowed down to Grass Spider or Hobo Spider. And I couldn’t really tell the difference from there. And my relief was shot, Grass Spider: harmless, Hobo Spider: just about as dangerous as a Brown Recluse.

And then I found an authoritative site from UC Berkeley which was billed as Frequently Encountered Spiders in California. The pictures were big and clear, and toward the bottom I found a portrait of, possibly, our monster bearing the caption: “A recently arrived mediterranean invasive, now found in the Bay Area. If you see this spider, please contact Darrell Ubick at the California Academy of Science.” Ominous. Nothing more was said about the spider itself – like maybe if it was dangerous. Amazingly, we were headed there the next day to chaperone a field trip for our son’s second grade class from River Glen School. The coincidence was awesome. Seriously, what are the odds? (well, the odds are 1:1, because it happened.) I decided that I would bring this monster along on Thursday and deliver it in person. It spent Wednesday night in a vented plastic container in our garage.

Of course, I had a nightmare about it. In my dream, Darrell Ubick was wrestling the struggling creature down to a board with pins so that he could subject it to his scanning electron microscope. Dreams are like postcards from your subconscious, but this scenario was probably pretty close to what was

Spidey riding in the back seat.

actually going to happen. By the morning, though, I had somehow made my peace with the spider. It was creepy, may have been deadly, but still, it rode in the backseat of my car up to the city, and then in my backpack all morning. Sandra asked me where it was. I pointed to my back, her eyes grew big.

So I found my way to the Naturalist Center on the third floor. And there my theories were validated, my fears were assuaged, my feathers smoothed. There I met Alison Young.

Alison Young has bright eyes and a disarming smile. And her squeamish rating, unike mine,

Alison Young from the Academy of Sciences - not afraid of spiders.

appears to be very nearly zero. When I asked if she’d like to look at the spider she perked up and nodded. It took her less than ten seconds to identify it: “Yes, that’s definitely zoropsis.” She said. I could not wait to tell Sandra this news.

Alison showed me a Google Earth map with a pin for every location that one of these spiders had been found – most in the South Bay. The year-by-year number of sightings grew, and to date there are over a hundred. Not severely invasive, not pushing any other species out yet, but still something that the Academy is tracking.

Zoropsis Spinimana sightings in California

It’s a good time to mention this; the spider is harmless to us humans. Alison showed a video of the spider crawling on the soft palm of someone’s hand. I had to look away. I am creeped out by spiders, I said that before. here’s a list of five things I really never want in my hand. In increasing order:

A snail
Cat food
Flaming wood
One of my own organs
This spider

Other facts: This one that Sandra had caught is a male, the females are bigger. (Bigger!) Good news, though, since it meant we wouldn’t find any egg sacks…hopefully. It’s realted to the Wolf spider – both are hunters. They do not spin webs. The first known specimen was found in Sunnyvale. Alison told me

Naturalist Center at The California Academy of Sciences

that they mostly received dead spiders (squashed, no doubt) or photos of them. A live one was a rarity. I filled out a form that included the exact location where Sandra had found it. I later learned that Darrell Ubick had picked up the specimen on his way to a meeting. I pictured him in a meeting with a live spider languishing in a container next to him. This probably happens all the time in his field. I didn’t have the chance to meet him, but read his background on the Academy website, with something like a hundred publications – he is a man who knows his bugs. Alison told us that he would catalog Sandra’s spider into the Academy’s archives.

I was not sentimental about leaving the arachnid behind. And Sandra, you’re some kind of field research fellow for the California Academy of Sciences, now. So I might ask you to do more insect duty at home.

Some other pictures from the second grade trip to the California Academy of Sciences. Thanks to the parents and teachers who made it happen.

3 comments

  1. Jeffrey Warnock says:

    Great write up, Dan… So, ya know… I had a pet Tarantula for 19 years. I bought her in college to use as a model for a sculpture. She lived with me in Stockton, Los Altos, Palo Alto, Santa Barbara, Modesto, and San Francisco, I even brought her to Lake Tahoe with me when i went up there for a couple weeks. Her name was Rosie.

  2. Saurabh says:

    Very nicely put Dan..

    i’m sure parents and relatives of this spider wud like to thank you for the spider became the inspiration of this writeup..
    jokes apart, it is a good read.

  3. So you’ve met Zoro, the dashing newcomer! Kudos to you for your kindness toward a creature that gave you the willies; I wish there were more open-minded arachnophobes like you, Dan. You’ve also given an example of how good information can drive out bad, as long as someone’s willing to take the step of seeking out the good information.

    I enjoy running into Zoropsis in my WG home and always relocate it to the garage, where the climate is still mild and there are plenty of other bugs and spiders to eat.

    Viva Zoro!