Seagoing Spiders

Seagoing Spiders

Frank Graham Jr.
Published: 10/14/2007

The late-summer marsh grasses along Beaver Meadow Brook were awash. Though I had often explored the brook by small boat and its shoreline on foot, I had never before seen them under such an expanse of water. The season's highest tides, listed for that day in the charts at 13 feet, four inches, had surged into this mile-and-a-half stretch of saltwater marsh on the eastern Maine coast and spread over its elevated muddy fringes.

A belted kingfisher rattled from snag to snag on the distant high ground and a pair of black ducks flew overhead. But otherwise the marsh seemed devoid of wildlife. No great blue heron stalked the now nonexistent shallows, no greater yellowlegs foraged in the little ponds that occupy depressed areas among the stands of  grasses at normal high water. Usually constrained by a meandering channel, the boat was now free to cruise at will over this ephemeral lake.

Then, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed the water surface around the boat was alive with a flotilla of small creatures. They didn't move with the calm ease of water striders across a freshwater pond. These guys seemed to be scrambling for their lives. Taking a closer look, I saw they were spiders-dozens of them. They weren't the huge "fishing spiders," Dolomedes, that hang around  docks and shorelines feeding mostly on insects and pollywogs. Most were juvenile wolf spiders,  normally denizens of the higher, drier ground, now swept away by the unlooked-for deluge.

I scooped several from the water with a plastic film canister I carry to catch the occasional interesting bug. One or two were indeed wolf spiders, another a mature funnel-web spider, and still another a juvenile sac spider which, when adult, will construct her nesting "sac" by ingeniously folding origami-wise the stem of a marsh grass.

A quirk of nature? Not really. Many kinds of spiders are equipped for such calamity in part by the dense, water-repellent ("hydrophobic") hairs on their legs. Not so favored, the comb-footed spiders become hopelessly wet in water and soon sink. But members of some other families doggedly stay afloat, using a rowing motion or moving each leg pair alternately, perhaps orienting themselves to safety by the sun's position in the sky and an "internal clock."

No matter. I had seen a flotilla of spiders, adrift on the sea.