The sky is falling… oh it’s just spiders

ballooning spider drawing

Drawing of a ballooning spider on a clover leaf.  From B.J. Kaston’s How to Know the Spiders

“Fairies with gossamer wings, bring forth beauty, grace and joyful things.”

Dallas television and radio stations yesterday were obsessed with reports of strange white silk dropping out of the skies over north Texas. Although this is an annual phenomenon, it always seems to catch many unawares.

The silken strands falling from the skies are spider silk.  The English called it “gossamer”, the Germans call it the “flying summer”.  Whatever you call it, this silken shower is evidence of a massive spider dispersal that takes place every year, especially in the fall.

The ability to travel and disperse is a requirement for success in both the plant and animal world. Animals that want to succeed must have the ability to discover new habitats and new lands. Spiders, with their short legs, would seem to be at a disadvantage in the distance travel game, except for one trick.

Baby spiders and many of the smaller spider species, have become especially adept at aerial travel.  It’s called ballooning, and it is basically hang gliding for the eight-legged.  Ballooning spiders first climb to some high precipice (the top of a grass stem, tree branch or fence post, say) before turning skyward its silk-spinning organs (spinnerets, usually located on the tip of its abdomen).  As wind currents catch the emerging strands of silk, the tiny spiders are caught up into the air and hurtled to destinations unknown.

As these silken parachutes are blown about on the wind they adhere to other spider parachutes and eventually form clumps large enough to be seen by even casual observers.  Hence the gossamer that everyone is wondering about right now.

Ballooning is a natural phenomenon, something I found myself explaining to reporters and some in the public shortly after 9/11/2001 when everyone’s thoughts were on terrorism.  I recall a rumor at that time that the silk was part of some sinister plot.  It took some explaining to calm excited callers and convince them that Al Qaeda was not foisting a chemical (or spider) attack on North America.

The big clumps of silk I see drifting on the winds in the fall serve to remind me that humans are still the minority on planet earth. Imagine the billions of tiny spiders it must take to cover the countryside with so many of these gossamer strands.  Hundreds of spiders must be involved in creating just a single visible clump of silk. And this has been happening annually for dozens of millions of years.

So a quick salute to the spiders.  May they land in fair places…away from my house.

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