Saturday, September 26, 2009

Indian Spiders

Sunday article by Mohan Pai
Indian Spiders
Pic courtesy: Sandilya Theurkauf
Cobwebs of deception
In the gathering light of dawn, an orb-web spider sits motionless in the centre of its web. The web is one of nature’s most ingenious traps - woven from at least six types of silks and constructed with mathematical precision. But spiders are so short-sighted that they can barely see their webs. Instead they build them by touch, and instinct guides their every move. Weight for weight, spider’s silk is stronger than steel. Even so, webs soon get damaged and need to be repaired. When the damage gets too great, a spider instinctively knows to give up on repair work, and start afresh. It eats up the old web so that it can digest and recycle the silk. Each kind of spider always makes exactly the same kind of web.
‘Come into my parlour...’
Spiders are generally regarded as predatory. The best-known method of prey capture is by means of sticky webs. Varying placement of webs allows different species of spider to trap different insects in the same area, for example flat horizontal webs trap insects that fly up from vegetation underneath while flat vertical webs trap insects in horizontal flight. Web-building spiders have poor vision, but are extremely sensitive to vibrations. Females of the water spider Argyroneta aquatica build underwater "diving bell" webs which they fill with air and use for digesting prey, molting, mating and raising offspring. They live almost entirely within the bells, darting out to catch prey animals that touch the bell or the threads that anchor it. A few spiders use the surfaces of lakes and ponds as "webs", detecting trapped insects by the vibrations that these cause while struggling. Spiders (order Araneae) are air-breathing chelicerate arthropods that have eight legs, and chelicerae modified into fangs that inject venom. They are the largest order of arachnids and rank seventh in total species diversity among all other groups of organisms. Spiders are found world-wide on every continent except for Antarctica, and have become established in nearly every ecological niche with the exception of air and sea colonization. As of 2008, approximately 40,000 spider species, and 109 families have been recorded by taxonomists. However, there has been confusion within the scientific community as to how all these genera should be classified, as evidenced by the over 20 different classifications that have been proposed since 1900.
Spiders are abundant and widespread in almost all ecosystems and constitute one of the most important components of global biodiversity. Spiders have a very significant role to play in ecology by being exclusively predatory and thereby maintaining ecological equilibrium. Many spiders feed on noxious insects like houseflies and mosquitoes which are vectors of human diseases. A large number of spiders are found in agricultural fields and thus play an important role in controlling the population of many agricultural pests. Despite this importance, spiders are largely neglected mainly due to ignorance and fear and the subsequent dislike for them. Although more than 1400 species (quite a number is endemic) have been described from India (and many more to be documented), the study on the taxonomy, biology and ecology of Indian spiders remains neglected.
Anatomically, spiders differ from other arthropods in that the usual body segments are fused into two tagmata, the cephalothorax and abdomen, and joined by a small, cylindrical pedicel. Unlike insects, spiders do not have antennae. In all except the most primitive group, the Mesothelae, spiders have the most centralized nervous systems of all arthropods, as all their ganglia are fused into one mass in the cephalothorax. Unlike most arthropods, spiders have no extensor muscles in their limbs and instead extend them by hydraulic pressure.Their abdomens bear appendages that have been modified into spinnerets that extrude silk from up to six types of silk glands within their abdomen. Spider's webs vary widely in size, shape and the amount of sticky thread used. It now appears that the spiral orb web may be one of the earliest forms, and spiders that produce tangled cobwebs are more abundant and diverse than orb-web spiders. Spider-like arachnids with silk-producing spigots appear in the Devonian period about 386 million years ago, but these animals apparently lacked spinnerets.
True spiders have been found in Carboniferous rocks from 318 to 299 million years ago, and are very similar to the most primitive surviving order, the Mesothelae. The main groups of modern spiders, Mygalomorphae and Araneomorphae, first appear in the Triassic period, before 200 million years ago. Most known species are predators, mostly preying on insects and on other spiders, although a few large species also take birds and lizards. Spiders use a wide range of strategies to capture prey: trapping it in sticky webs, lassoing it with sticky bolas, mimicking the prey to avoid detection, or running it down. Spiders' guts are too narrow to take solids, and they liquidize their food by flooding it with digestive enzymes and grinding it with the bases of their pedipalps, as they do not have true jaws.Male spiders identify themselves by a variety of complex courtship rituals to avoid being eaten by the females. Males of most species survive a few matings, limited mainly by their short life spans. Females weave silk egg-cases, each of which may contain hundreds of eggs. Females of many species care for their young, for example by carrying them around or by sharing food with them. A minority of species are social, building communal webs that may house anywhere from a few to 50,000 individuals. Social behavior ranges from precarious toleration, as in the aggressive widow spiders, to co-operative hunting and food-sharing. Although most spiders live for at most two years, tarantulas and other mygalomorph spiders can live up to 25 years in captivity.While the venom of a few species is dangerous to humans, scientists are now researching the use of spider venom in medicine and as non-polluting pesticides. Spider silk provides a combination of lightness, strength and elasticity that is superior to that of synthetic materials, and spider silk genes have been inserted into mammals and plants to see if these can be used as silk factories. As a result of their wide range of behaviors, spiders have become common symbols in art and mythology symbolizing various combinations of patience, cruelty and creative powers.

References: Wikipedia, Spider information
For some of my articles visit:
For some key chapters from my book "The Western Ghats", please log on to:
For detailed blog (6 Chapters from my book) on Mahadayi/Mandovi River Valley, please log on to:

No comments: