I have always admired nature’s mutineers: animals and plants that thwart the recognized system and do their own thing. As a child I was the sole member of my own duck-billed platypus club, endeared to this creature with the bird-like bill, beaver-style tail, and shocking ability to lay eggs.
Other charming eccentrics: the tamarack, a conifer that loses its needles every winter; male seahorses that give birth to thousands of live babies; and the short-tailed shrew, a tiny mammal that uses a lizard-like venom to paralyze its prey. » Continue Reading.
When I was little and tagging along when my dad tended his vegetables, I would sometimes find large black and yellow garden spiders. They were beautiful, and I noticed they had a curious trait: they often added a bright white decorative zigzag to their webs. I always wondered why, if a spider web is meant to catch insects unawares, these spiders would go to such effort to make their webs more visible?
To answer this question, I recently spoke with Dr. Todd Blackledge, who researches spider silk and the web decorations of garden spiders. » Continue Reading.
Spiders can be dangerous, but mostly in ways you would never imagine.
A couple of years ago a guy in Seattle burned his house down trying to kill spiders with a blowtorch. In 2015 at a Michigan gas station, a man tried to kill one with a lighter and burned up a pump island, narrowly escaping injury. And Mazda had to recall 42,000 vehicles in 2014 because spiders could clog a small fuel vent line with silk, potentially cracking the gas tank and causing a fire. It’s no wonder we are afraid of spiders, right?
Fear of spiders is so common and widespread, it may well be encoded in our DNA. Obviously it would have behooved early humans to learn to be wary of spiders, as a few species are poisonous. Mind you, it’s a tiny minority, but spiders can be hard to tell apart. If something with way too many legs and eyes scurries up our leg, most of us will swat first and ask questions later. It’s a rare person whose first reaction is “Great—hand it over so I can key it out!” when their partner announces there’s a big spider in the bed. You know that person is a hardcore nerd. And that they probably have a relationship issue to work out if they don’t want to sleep alone that night. » Continue Reading.
There is an all-natural material, produced at room temperature, that can be used to build homes, to make protective coverings, to hunt and trap, and even to swing through the air. It’s hypoallergenic, antimicrobial, and waterproof. On a per-weight basis it’s stronger than steel and more elastic than nylon or kevlar.
What is this remarkable material? Spider silk.
If it sounds impossible that a single material can be used for so many purposes, well, in a way it is. Depending on how you want to count them, there are seven or eight kinds of spider silk in the world, and any given spider species may make as many as six different kinds. » Continue Reading.
We two-leggeds build inviting habitats and fill them with ample food supplies. We heat these spaces in winter, cool them in summer, and keep them dry year-round. And when our wild neighbors have the audacity to move in, we frequently kill them on sight.
My wife and I recently restored an old brick farmhouse that was built in 1790, back when Vermont was still an independent republic. We removed walls and ceilings to expose and repair the original structure, then vacuumed every nook and cranny to remove debris left behind by two centuries of sundry inhabitants. » Continue Reading.
Imagine you’re an insect cruising through the air. Suddenly, you realize you’re heading straight for a spider web. You’re doomed. But wait – you can still escape by slipping through one of the gaps. Spider webs are, after all, more gaps than web. You aim between the sticky threads – it’s going to be a close call, but you’re going to make it.
Then, as you pass through, the threads snap towards you … and you’re a spider’s dinner!
It sounds impossible that the threads of a spider web could actively reach out for prey, yet recent studies show that it is not only possible, but may be yet another ingenious spider strategy for capturing insects on the fly. How do webs do this? Static electricity. It turns out spider webs are attracted to the static charge on flying insects. » Continue Reading.
Spiders! Some of us hate them but we have every reason to love, or at least tolerate, their presence in our lives. Spiders eat mosquitoes. They eat blackflies. They eat deer flies. They almost never bite us, partly because the great majority of them lack the inclination and the anatomy to puncture human skin. Some spiders jump, others build webs, and some run around like wolves and are called wolf spiders. At our house, we welcome all spiders. But be careful if you go to Sydney…Learn more in this week’s edition of All Things Natural with Ed Kanze.» Continue Reading.
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