Daddy long legs tussle sparks curiosity

Comments Comments Print Print
D.S. Pledger
Sunday, September 22, 2013

It may just be my imagination, but this seems to be a good year for daddy long legs spiders. I'm finding them everywhere.

I recently came across what appeared to be a ball of legs moving around on our back porch. Closer inspection showed it to be four daddy long legs all wrapped up together. Since I'd never seen anything like this before, I forwarded a picture to my brother—who is something of a naturalist—for an explanation. He'd never heard of such a thing, either, nor had anyone else I asked about it.

Next stop to unravel the mystery—the Internet.

After Googling “daddy long legs,” though, I still couldn't find out why they were all knotted up in a ball, but I did discover a bunch of other interesting things about them and their kin that are worth passing on.

Although they are a member of the arachnid family, the commonly called “daddy long legs” are not true spiders. Properly called “harvestmen”, they don't have a segmented body or the eight eyes of genuine spiders. They don't spin webs like most spiders do, either.

Since the harvestman doesn't have venom or fangs, its diet doesn't include insects. Rather, it sustains itself by feeding on decaying plant matter and other yucky stuff like decomposing animals and bird droppings. One source noted that in captivityh Harvestmen survived well on bread crusts, butter and, occasionally, meat.

While Urban Myth tells us that the Harvestman packs a potent poison in its bite, this is not true.

First of all it has no venom, and even if it did, it lacks the fangs to deliver it. It's a harmless insect that simply rummages around on the forest floor on its stilt-like legs looking for a meal. Like a skunk, it can emit an odor when threatened that might discourage and would-be predator.

The closest explanation regarding the scrum of them that I came across is that they are quite social and sometimes congregate in large numbers (in the case of the tight-packed ball, though, “social” might be an understatement).

My research also revealed that the true daddy long legs is that leggy spider you often find in your basement. Also called a “cellar spider”, this common cellar-dweller does spin a web and catch insects. It is also not above commandeering prey trapped in another spider's web or even the eggs another has laid.

Perhaps its most endearing quality though, is that it eats other spiders—especially those big fuzzy ones you'd rather not have around. For me, at least, that's reason enough to give them free reign.

Also called “vibrating spiders,” these arachnids are able to oscillate their webs in a dizzying, spinning motion. They do this when feeling threatened or as a ploy when they go hunting other spiders. In the case of the latter, they vibrate their victim's web, imitating the struggles of a trapped insect. This lures the owner to where the cellar spider can attack it.

Years ago in the basement of our former residence I once came across a violently gyrating web where a cellar spider was making short work of some kind of hairy arachnid that was much larger. Even with its size deficit, the cellar spider had the upper hand, since the movement of the web disoriented the other spider, making it difficult to keep track of its attacker.

For all of its interesting behavior, though, the cellar spider is something of a slob. Instead of keeping its web tidy, when things gets too cluttered or dirty, the long legs simply moves on and spins another one. This is why some people don't tolerate them around the house. The fact that these arachnids are social and like to live in close proximity to each other adds to the mess and doesn't help make them welcome, either.

D.S. Pledger is an outdoors columnist for The Gazette. Email him at maus16@centurytel.net.

Comments Comments Print Print