The Edmond Sun

March 9, 2013

Trapdoor spider ‘barackobamai’ survives by stealth, ambush

Mike Hinkle
Special to The Sun

EDMOND — According to the March 9 issue of “Science News,” our president has another honor — this time from the scientific community. Dr. Jason Bond, director of the Auburn University Museum of Natural History, unveiled a hitherto unclassified species of trapdoor spider. This new spider has been dubbed Aptostichus (not pronounced “apt to stick us”) barackobamai. Before we take a closer look at this newly discovered master of stealth and deception, let’s review what we know about trapdoor spiders.

Their name springs from the ingenious trapdoor they construct to camouflage their hiding place as they lie in wait for their prey. This cleverly designed mechanism snaps open when the unwary victim blunders into the spider’s “kill zone.”

The spider constructs the trap using innocent appearing material — soil, leaves, grass, bits of bark — leaving the victim totally unaware that this normal appearing setting is, in fact, the scene of a lethal ambush.

The unfortunate prey has no easily discernible warning. The magnitude of the danger is unrealized until the trap springs and there is no chance of escape.

This deceptive predator survives and thrives because the nature of the danger it constructs from innocuous environmental material is hard to detect and can’t easily be observed until it’s too late.

Trapdoor spiders are very patient. Their elaborate traps are planned well in advance. They use thin strands of spider silk to construct a system of “trip lines” surrounding their lair. When the unsuspecting victim touches one of these lines, the waiting spider is alerted and the ambush is set. The spider uses its claws to hold the trap’s underside in place as the doomed prey draws near. When the spider senses the victim is within reach, the trapdoor flies open, the spider springs out and the victim is drawn, struggling, into the subterranean lair where the spider will feed at leisure.

Obviously, if the spider is clearly observed and the true nature of the danger is appreciated, the trap will never work. The trapdoor spider can succeed only to the degree its victims can’t see and don’t know what it’s up to. Consequently, the spider works mostly underground and mostly under cover of darkness. Thus, employing craft and stealth, the lethal work of the trapdoor spider is rarely seen and the trap’s construction and purpose is successfully concealed.

Scientists have long suspected there are many more trapdoor spiders than we know but they remain undetected because of their naturally secretive habits. This, of course, explains why the Aptostichus barackobamai has remained under the scientific radar all these years.

This new species, the largest trapdoor spider ever catalogued, wasn’t uncovered in some remote, inaccessible jungle or desert area. This spider was found right here in the United States, living unobserved among the human population of the American Southwest. The spiders have been laying traps and seizing prey beneath our feet for eons and, due to their craft and stealth, we knew nothing about them.

Some nonscientists have posed this question: Now that the existence of this new species is uncovered, now that we know where they are and what they’re up to, will there be any change in their behavior? So far, there is no official scientific answer. However, my suspicion, based on past behavior of trapdoor spiders is that nothing will change. The Aptostichus barackobamai will continue to lay cleverly concealed trip lines, construct undetected traps, lurk unseen in its subterranean lair and, protected by the dark, it will continue to seize unsuspecting prey as it has for generations.

Don’t get me wrong here. I am not one of those squeamish types that have a natural aversion to spiders. In fact, I admire them for their efficient design, their diversity, their evolutionary staying power. And, to give the devil his due, I’m quite impressed that this particular spider has managed to carry out his activities right under our noses without detection.

Just the same, I’d really rather not have spiders — trapdoor or otherwise — crawling around in my business. I’m a “live-and-let-live” sort of guy. Consequently, it would be unfair to be overly critical of Aptostichus barackobamai. He’s never pretended to be anything but a master of craft and disguise. He really cannot help it that he is designed by nature to live by stealth and ambush.

So what is the most important lesson we can draw from this recent discovery? Obviously, we have underestimated the skill of these trapdoor spiders when it comes to pursuing their goals undetected right under our feet. There’s really no telling what we may learn about them now that we know they’re among us. I’m Hink and I’ll see ya.

MIKE HINKLE is an Edmond resident and retired attorney.