The water’s edge was tantalizingly close. Only the oaks, festooned with resurrection ferns and polypore fungi, appeared to stand between us and our destination.
Each tree stood, in full leaf, several feet apart from the next, allowing what would seem to be an easy access to the swampy waters. The flat forest floor had been washed clear of the brambles and greenbrier ground-cover from the annual floods.
Just ahead, a photographer’s treasure trove of semi-aquatic species awaited. The anticipation was palpable. As sweat beaded on our brows, and our eyes eagerly searched for reptiles and invertebrates that might be trodden upon (or photographed), we strode confidently towards the nearest trees. Then there was a sudden halt to the merry expedition as our necks reared back like cobras and expletives were announced.
Before us, the expansive web of the Golden Silk Orb-Weaver (Trichonephila clavipes) stretched widely from tree to tree, and the spider, at first unseen, loomed immediately into sight. Her striking, yellow and elongated abdomen and her graceful yet menacing symmetrical legs quickly brought up old fears, taught or instinctive, associated with the shape of the arachnid.
A few steps back to take the situation in: I’m ok, the spider is ok, I didn’t make contact with the web, so no need to start flapping my arms and filling the bayou with panicked squeals and the iterations of “get it off me, get it off me”. The spider ceased its own panicked movement and we breathed, initial assessments of each other complete now.
After we collected ourselves, we took a couple of pictures of her, and noticed that her “knees” were actually covered in tiny, dense black hairs. She had a male in her web too, although he was much smaller and was a subtler maroon color. Her construction was several feet across and a couple of feet tall, and built vertically, as is characteristic of the Golden Silk Orb-Weaver. It was positioned so that only a limbo champion could go under successfully.
Through her web, we could see our destination. But another route was required. The opposite side of the tree to the right looked potentially promising and appeared clear. After a few steps, the sun’s rays shone through the leafy canopy and illuminated a web. Another Golden Silk Orb-Weaver sat boldly in the center of her web, guarding our passageway. What she knew and we didn’t was that she adjusts the golden color of her web depending on light levels. The darker it is, the brighter the web.
At every turn, the webs stretched across potential ways to the water, where we might see some interesting wildlife. The shoreline of Black Bayou Lake, Monroe, Louisiana offers myriad cricket frogs, horned passalus beetles, cottonmouth vipers, dragonflies, fungi, protists, and more besides. With less certainty that we would make it to the water, we went back the way we came, past the webs, which showed that nothing tall enough had come that way recently. Not deer, man or Sasquatch.
The Golden Silk Orb-Weaver’s scientific name is Trichonephila clavipes’s. Nephila, means “fond of spinning”, and we were witness to that as we walked further along and parallel to the water’s edge. Her thickly-woven zig-zag pattern, called a stabilimentum, stood out against the background of the cypress knees and dimly-lit water. The purpose of this structure is still being hotly debated by arachnologists and I’m keen to see which idea comes out on top, though it may serve multiple functions. It could be for stabilizing the whole web as its name suggests, it might also serve as a visible element to deter birds, and naturalists, from colliding with the structure and thus preventing expensive repairs and ‘down-time’.
Everybody is agreed that the strength of her silk is greater than that of steel for its size. We were reminded of that when the anchor line of another web, not immediately visible, but tangible, stretched across my forehead. It was like walking into fishing line. This clear, flexible and strong monofiliment pressed into my skin, remained intact and allowed me to step back, un-stuck, the web remains undamaged.
Beyond this current web was another. And another. And two more. The forest, which looked like an easy access to something interesting, turned out to be a well-planned Golden Silk Orb-Weaver community, which turned out to be interesting itself. By communally gathering like this, they are able to detect predators more easily, which increases their chance of survival. It may decrease our chances of seeing what was near the water, but the opportunity to learn more about nature was literally an in-your-face experience.