An alien in the woods

October 04, 2016 11:56 am | Updated November 01, 2016 10:53 pm IST - Chennai

How a group of explorers stumbled upon the elusive net-casting spider

The net-casting spider as it was found when I first spotted it. Photo: S.U. Saravanakumar.

The net-casting spider as it was found when I first spotted it. Photo: S.U. Saravanakumar.

I was tired and hungry and so were the others. We had walked for many hours since early that morning. With only a soggy sandwich each in our tummies, I was facing a fairly grumpy and rebellious group. We were exploring a beautiful fog-filled dense forest patch to find and take pictures of different spiders in the rainforests of the Western Ghats for a part of my research project. It had been an exciting and adventurous day, but the unexpected heavy plonks of rain and accompanying strong winds meant that we had to quickly pack up all our equipment and call it a day.

We had managed to find and photograph eight very interesting spiders that morning and I considered it an unusually lucky day. In a single magical span of 10 minutes, we had found the elusive iridescent-coloured jumping spider with a little tuft on its head, and the eerie-looking long bodied whip shaped spider hanging from a single silken web which I had seen only once many months before. The Goddess of Spiders was indeed being good to us today! These two particular spiders were a bit difficult to photograph, and the fading light and gusts of wind made it a struggle to get satisfactory pictures. But now we needed to leave soon, especially since the way back was a steep and slippery climb downhill.

Wait! Something moved when I walked past that shrub just now – was it a twig? You need to look at it a bit closer, urged a voice in my head. I had accidentally dislodged a twig-like object, which was now swinging quite unusually. I found this strange because there was no breeze at that particular moment. A sudden adrenalin rush hit me when I realized what I was looking at! I had accidentally stumbled upon a net-casting spider! Now this may not mean much to you, but I had read about this spider for a long time, and had tried in vain to find one. It is often featured in the books of the world’s weirdest animals. When I had first seen pictures of it I had immediately christened it “the alien spider” because of its strange and unique appearance – and after many years of finding and studying spiders, this was the first time I came face-to-face with it! The rest of the group had gone much ahead, and I urgently called them back in whistles and hisses – this being appropriate forest etiquette. This spider needed to be photographed and I dared not take my eyes off it because it was so well camouflaged against the shrubby vegetation.

Net-casting spiders are nocturnal and get their name because they weave a zig-zag silken web which acts as a net. The silk net is outstretched between the spider’s first two pairs of legs, which it holds while dangling upside down. This spider net is thrown over an unsuspecting insect which happens to wander by, which is then hauled up to be made a meal of. I was beside myself with delight as the group took photos of my alien spider from every possible angle. And as I told them about how this spider hunts its prey and what a rare find it was, everyone’s hunger pangs, exhaustion and the heavy rain now beating down on us were momentarily forgotten.

Creepy, crawly strangers

*Spiders come in a mind-boggling 45,000 different shapes, sizes and colours and are found worldwide in every continent except Antarctica.

*Net-casting spiders are also known as ogre-faced spiders because of their unusual appearance.

*Their bodies are elongate and stick-like and they have excellent night vision. They have 8 eyes like many other spiders but only one pair is really large and prominent.

*When a potential prey appears the spider stretches its silken net to two or three times its relaxed size and then propels this net on the unsuspecting victim.

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