Lurking in the dark crevices of trees, rocks and even your own home. With over 43,000 known species you’re never far from a spider.
One of the world’s most feared, misunderstood and maligned creatures, these eight-legged invertebrates are not insects. Spiders are arachnids, a class of arthropods that also includes scorpions, mites, and ticks. Spiders are found in habitats all over the world, including some found north of the Arctic circle.
Many spiders have eight eyes, though some have only six. Despite these extra eyes however, they are considered to have relatively poor eyesight.
Many hunting spiders possess dense hair tufts called scopulae under the claws of their feet. Each individual scopula hair splits into thousands of tiny extensions known as end feet. These end feet increase the number of contact points with the surface, creating great adhesion and allow the spiders to walk on smooth vertical surfaces, across ceilings and even window panes. .
Most species are carnivorous, feeding mostly on insects that they catch in their webs, or simply by hunting them down. In order to consume their prey, spiders inject their prey with digestive fluids and then suck out the liquefied remains.
Though not all spiders build webs, every species produces silk. They use the strong, flexible protein fiber for many different purposes: climbing, hanging or tethering themselves, to create egg sacs, to wrap up prey, and to make nests. Spider silk is the strongest known natural fiber and for its size is often considered stronger than steel.
Though all spiders have venom which they use to paralyze their prey, typically small insects – only a handful are dangerous to humans. The recluse and widow spider species are some of the most common types that people may encounter whose bite can result in serious, painful symptoms.
The black widow spider is a small black creature with a distinguishing red hour-glass mark on it’s abdomen. Black widows are comb-footed spiders, which means they have bristles on their hind legs that they use to cover their prey with silk once it has been trapped. It is often believed that females will kill and eat their male counterparts after mating – a behavior that gave them their common name, however studies have shown that this is not a common behavior. Bites from black widows are rarely fatal to humans but can be extra dangerous to children and the elderly,
The brown recluse spider is about the size of a quarter and is well known for its “secretive” (or reclusive) behaviors, as it prefers to live in warm, dry and dark environments, such as woodpiles, basements and closets. Bites are usually a defense when they are startled or feel trapped. The brown recluse hunts at night and does not employ a web to capture food.
The funnel-web spiders of Australia are among the most venomous species in the world. These glossy black spiders have backward facing fangs that can penetrate through a fingernail. Their venom is capable of killing a human though due to the availability of antivenom, no deaths have been reported since 1981. Cats and dogs have the ability to neutralize the venom in their body within an hour and chickens are often used to control web spider populations.
Other deadly species include the Brazilian wandering spider, but encounters with people are rare as this species is only found deep in the rain forest. Other spiders from Mexico and Central America resemble the wandering spider and are often found in banana shipments, though most of the look-a-likes are harmless to humans.
Many spiders are known for their web spinning abilities such as the orb weavers. Their large, intricate spiraling webs are often seen in gardens and fields and can reach a diameter of three feet. Bites from most orb weavers are considered similar to a bee sting.
Jumping spiders are able to jump up to 50 times their own length. It is thought that increased blood pressure in the hind legs allows for this super leaping ability. Though most spiders have poor vision, jumping spiders have very good eyesight and are believed to see in numerous spectrum of light including ultraviolet.
The golden silk spider is often considered to have one of the strongest webs of any species. In the South Pacific, fishermen have been known to combine several webs of certain silk spider species to make fishing nets.
Rather than relying on a web, wolf spiders are skilled hunters, chasing and pouncing on their insect prey. the Carolina wolf spider is the largest of the wolf spiders in North America with a length of nearly an inch and half.
Tarantulas are one of the largest and most recognizable species of spiders. The enormous Goliath bird-eating tarantula is considered to be the largest tarantula species with a leg-span up to a foot across. It produces a hissing sound by rubbing bristles on its legs, a sound that can be heard up to 15 feet away. Despite their name, they do not commonly eat birds but they will prey on small rodents.
The large and colorful Chilean rose hair tarantula is popular with pet owners. It is among the most commonly imported type of tarantula today. Some Chilean rose hair tarantulas have red hairs all over their body, while others have a tan body with pink “hairs.” Like all New World tarantula species, these spiders can flick their hairs off their abdomens, causing an irritating reaction in an attacker.
A fear of spiders, known as arachnophobia, is one of the most common fears in the world. However, spiders provide a huge benefit to humans. Researchers are studying various species’ venom for possible medical uses and spiders play an important role in their ecosystem by providing pest control that could otherwise be devastating to our food supply.
As night begins to settle in, hundreds or even thousands of dark flying creatures emerge from caves, trees and even from the eaves of neighborhood homes. Their quick-flapping wings create a familiar profile against the late evening sky. They are not birds, they are bats.
There are more than 1,300 known species of bats. They make up 20 percent of the world’s known mammals, are found on every continent except Antarctica and are the only mammals that can fly.
Although they are in their own order and often thought of as flying rodents, bats are actually more closely related to antelopes, rhinos, and pangolins.
Bats are in the mammal order Chiroptera (Kai-ROP-ter-uh) which is Latin for ‘hand wing’. Their specialized wings give bats an acrobatic flight capacity. They are comprised of four fingers covered with an elastic skin membrane stretched between each one.
Just like all mammals, bats are warm-blooded, have fur, give birth to live young and nurse their babies (also known as pups).
Bats play an important role in many environments around the world. Some plants depend partly or wholly on bats to pollinate their flowers or spread their seeds, while other bats also help control pests by eating insects. Bats are also key indicators of the health of the environment. They have very few natural enemies and a decline in their population may indicate problems and in-balance in the ecosystem.
Over 500 plant species rely on bats to pollinate their flowers, including species of mango, banana, guava and agave.
Plants pollinated by bats often have pale nocturnal flowers – in contrast, bees are mostly attracted to bright, daytime flowers. These flowers are often large and bell shaped, and many bats, such as the banana bat of Mexico have very long tongues that allow them to reach the nectar. Found in Ecuador, the tube-lipped nectar bat’s tongue is more than one and a half times the length of it’s body.
The baobab tree, sometimes called the “African Tree of Life” is considered critical to the survival of many wild species that inhabit the African savanna. Yet this giant tree is almost completely dependent on bats for pollination.
Like birds, some bats play a critical role in spreading the seeds of trees and other plants. Some tropical fruit bats carry seeds inside them as they digest the fruit, then excrete the seeds far away from the original tree. These seeds drop to the ground in their own ready-made highly effective fertilizer, which helps them germinate and grow. Bat excrement is often called guano.
The majority of the world’s bats eat insects. These bats are helpful in keeping bugs away from crops, this can also reduce the need for pesticide sprays. The Brazilian free-tailed bat has been recognized as an important “pest management service” in cotton farming. Many bats will also consume large amounts of mosquitoes each night – a benefit to people and other animals.
While a bat’s eyesight is similar to that of most other mammals, it doesn’t help much when hunting small insects in the dark of night. Instead, bats use sound waves beyond the range of human hearing to find their prey – a process called echolocation.
Echolocation helps them avoid collisions and locate their targets by emitting a click sound that will bounce off an object and return to the bat’s ears. The flaps and folds near their ears and face may help the bat tell the return echo from the original sound.
The closer the object, the faster the click echoes back. As an insect is detected, the clicking rate will reach speeds of up to 200 clicks-per-second. Upon contact, bats will either snatch the insect with their feet or gulp it directly down its mouth.
There are three vampire bat species that feed on blood – only one targets mammals such as cattle. All vampire bats species are found exclusively in Latin America. The vampire bats will make a small bite, usually while its animal prey is sleeping and then lap it up a small portion of the free flowing blood, many times the victim never knows. A powerful anticoagulant found in vampire saliva, which the bats use to keep blood from clotting, has been developed into a medication called Draculin – that can help prevent strokes in humans.
The largest bat is the Malayan Flying Fox with a wingspan of 6 feet and a weight of 5 pounds.
The smallest bat is known as the Bumblebee Bat. Found only in parts of Burma and Thailand, this tiny creature has a wingspan of 2.5 inches, weighs less than a penny and can sit on a person’s finger.
The Spectacled Flying Fox lives in rain forests, mangroves and swamps of Australia, Papa New Guinea and Indonesia. They have the greatest tolerance to temperature variance in any mammal ranging from 32 to 104°F
with almost no changes in metabolic rate.
While most bats are nocturnal – the Samoan flying fox is one of the only bat species known to forage almost exclusively during the day.
Bull dog bats are one of only a few bat species that are piscivorous, or fish-eating.
The Brazilian free-tailed bat can reach a horizontal flying speed of up to 100 mph, making them the fastest mammal on earth and even faster than most birds.
Bats live in a variety of habitats including trees, leaves, caves, mines, bat houses, man-made structures, and even termite nests. They are a communal species who will often share space with others, even different bat species – a group of bats is called a colony.
The largest known bat colony in the world is located at Bracken Cave Preserve outside of San Antonio, Texas and the largest urban bat colony can be found at the Congress Avenue Bridge in Austin, Texas.
Many people have often feared bats even believing that all bats carry and spread rabies. However this is not true. Like other mammals, bats can become infected but will usually die in a few days. However, a bat that can be easily approached by humans is likely to be sick and may bite if handled. You should never attempt to pick up or handle a bat.
Bats are essential to the world’s many ecosystems. Considered a “keystone species” in many places around the world, the often misunderstood, and sometimes feared, bat is vital not only to plants but even other wildlife species.
Prowling the snow covered mountains of Central Asia is a seldom seen creature, said to be a ghost of the mountain. This solitary animal is extremely elusive and rarely spotted in their native habitat.
With grey-white fur and its blurred dark spots and rosettes – the snow leopard is perfectly camouflaged in the barren, rocky mountains where it hunts. Equipped with large paws that acts as huge snow-shoes the ghost cat treks through the frozen ground in search of prey.
Snow leopards are typically nomadic, and constantly move throughout their home ranges. These cats are not as aggressively territorial as other species, but males still tend to have exclusive home ranges while overlapping with females in the same region.
Standing at 2 feet tall and over 4 feet long, the snow leopard is a powerful cat that lives at high elevations and often travel along ridge lines and cliff bases. With short front limbs and larger rear legs they can leap up to 30 feet from one cliff side to another. With a tail nearly as long as their body, it aids in balance as they move across the rocky terrain and they can leap vertically up to 20 feet in a single bound.
Made for life in a cold, often hostile environment – the snow leopard’s five-inch thick coat affords great protection from the cold. while their long bushy tail is often wrapped over the face when resting – acting like a scarf.
Mating season for snow leopards is between January and mid-March. During this time, a male and a female will travel together for a few days. The female is typically pregnant for about 100 days before giving birth in June or July.
Cubs are small and helpless when they are born, and do not open their eyes until they are about 7 days old. They can eat solids foods around 2 months old and at 3 months of age, they begin following their mother and start to learn important behavior like hunting.
Young snow leopards become independent and leave their mothers around two years old. Females are believed to be sexually mature by 3 years old, males reach maturity round 4 years of age. In the wild, snow leopards are believed to live up to 14 years.
A top predator in their habitat, snow leopards feed primarily on blue sheep and ibex as well as other hoofed mammals, hares, rodents and birds. They often eat slowly, remaining near the kill site for several days consuming their prey while defending it against scavengers.
In some regions, snow leopards will hunt domestic livestock causing conflict with humans. In addition, poaching for their valuable fur is another threat to their survival in the wild. Currently the snow leopard is listed as endangered.
Several North American accredited zoos participate in the AZA’s Species Survival Plan to maintain a genetically diverse population of leopards in managed care. These facilities include the Tulsa Zoo, the Cincinnati Zoo and the Oklahoma City Zoo.
It has been said that you can actually stare right at the snow leopard and not even see it as it effectively disappears into its surroundings. With it’s elusive nature and excellent camouflage earning it the perfect title: the ghost cat.
Special thanks to the following organizations for their education, research and conservation programs that provided information for this episode:
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