Last Night 2: Cruise Control

I already used the title ‘Last night’ long ago, so this is a sequel I guess, and I needed an appropriate indicator of how good it will be. This was the most recognizable, appearing on everyone’s list…

There has been a female barn spider (Araneus cavaticus) maintaining a huge web right alongside the front porch for several days now, but she only occupies it at night, as they do, and has kept it above head height so we’re not interfering with it during the day. The other night, I noticed activity from a suitor, and yesterday during the day I thought I saw him tucked away near the upper anchors of the web. Now I know that most of the orb weavers seek shelter at the uppermost anchors, but I guess I’d assumed that the wandering males got their moves on in a single session, the proverbial ‘one-night strand,’ (I’m going to hell, we know that already,) and then moved on or, like, died in the attempt. Apparently not, or at least not every time.

pair of courting barn spiders Araneus cavaticus
We’ll be frank, and say that very few people ever see a barn spider and say, “Oh what a beautiful spider!” and this includes entomologists and those spiders that have gone into modeling. The most complimentary thing that can be said about them is, they look like a meatball that rolled under the fridge and was found a few years later, after the civilization that arose upon it went extinct. Nonetheless, booty is in the eye of the beholder, and our paramour here was hard at work trying to convince his chosen one to let him break one off. This, to our eyes, mostly consists of playing a complicated game of pattycake. But he was at a disadvantage, as you can tell if you look closely.

pair of courting barn spiders Araneus cavaticus
[You know I do that on purpose to make you stare at the creepy pics, which certainly keeps my readership numbers up.] Yes, he’s definitely missing a few limbs there, though there’s at least one hidden in back, visible in other photos. You might think this would make him less desirable, but a) she probably dismembered him herself, because spider courtship be that way; b) who knows what actual traits spiders really look for in mates – it could be insane persistence in the face of fragmentation; and c) do you really think barn spiders can afford to be the slightest bit picky? I mean, c’mon, they’ve looked like this for decades – they’re not breeding for beauty.

Another aspect of this photo is that the female (which is the larger one, not that I’m making any comment whatsoever about this fact,) is facing the camera directly, and you can see four of her eyes if you look close. Go on – you know you have to.

I had considered trying to video this whole process, but the combatants lovers were well over my head in an awkward position and seemed to be taking a long time just playing pattycake, so I decided getting out the tripod and video light was not worth the effort. Lucky you.

Moving on, but not in any way ‘ahead.’

Just outside the margins of the backyard pond, I found a thin glistening trail that was actually extending as I watched, and bent close thinking it was an earthworm. It was not, in fact sporting an anatomical trait I’d never seen before, and I ended up collecting it (circumspectly) for a detailed photo session.

Yes, The Girlfriend is a real person and not a figment of my imagination. Assholes.

shovel-headed flatworm Bipalium kewense
That broad head certainly had me going, and it maintained this distinct shape the whole time; it was the key to identifying it. But before we get that far, I have to point out that this little specimen could stretch out well over 20cm, and was as sticky on the underside as any slug, if not more so, and without knowing what the hell I’d found (suspecting some kind of leech from being right outside the pond,) I made sure I wasn’t touching it. It brought along several strands of pine straw and a few dead leaves as I collected it into a film can, but I eventually convinced these to part company as I ‘posed’ the wormlike-thing on a cluster of leaves.

shovel-headed flatworm Bipalium kewense on millimeter scale
Of course, like most of my photo subjects, it showed no inclination to cooperate and stay on the leaves, so we have portions of my desk appearing. I was dumb enough (shocking I know) not to get the millimeter scale out before I started the session, so I was juggling and wrangling my subject as I tried to pose it with the scale and get the camera back in hand before it slithered off across my desk and made me buy a new one.

top of 'head' of shovel-headed flatworm Bipalium kewense
I made the effort to examine the head closely for any signs of sensory apparatus, a mouth, earlobes, and so on, but this was in vain because the species barely has a ‘head’ to speak of. This is a shovel-headed flatworm (Bipalium kewense,) a type of land planaria that is an invasive species in this country and feeds on slugs and earthworms. As such, gardeners tend not to like them, because earthworms are good for the soil but these guys aren’t. And they have toxic internal organs, somehow collecting tetradodoxins within, so nothing eats them either. Not more than once, anyway.

underside of 'head' of shovel-headed flatworm Bipalium kewense
I wanted to see a mouth, so I got out the macro aquarium (again, later than I should’ve) and managed to get the flatworm to climb the glass long enough for a pic of the underside of the ‘head,’ though not long enough to get all the lint and grunge out of the image. I was aiming in entirely the wrong location, however, because their double-duty mouth/anus is located in the center of their underside. And if that’s not creepy enough, they cling to their prey, evert their pharynx, and bathe their meal in chemicals that make it dissolve on location, sucking up the results. Yeah, no, this research last night did not provoke any weird-ass dreams at all.

Now, to cap it all off, I still have this specimen in the film can, because I’m undecided yet on whether I will try for a photo of the mouth itself, or even feed it an earthworm to photograph (or video) this whole process in disgusting detail. It’s not too late, so feel free to send me words of encouragement and suggestions of angles and lighting and so on. Anyone can photograph bunnies, but someone has to get the fun stuff.

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