Rob Gatchell is seeing red.
Though you may not realize that you know Rob, you likely at least know where he lives. Soon enough, his home on County Road in Oak Bluffs will become one of the most visited holiday attractions on the Island. It is his spectacular seasonal light display that causes all of the fuss.
Last week, Rob was cleaning up his yard, to begin setting up the light display for the folks that return year after year. That’s when he saw red, not due to a broken bulb or a bad string of lights, but because of a spider.
While cleaning up his woodpile, Rob found a large red spider. Not familiar with the appearance of this early visitor, he e-mailed me a photo. It was a sizeable spider with red legs and a red cephalo-thorax (head and middle body segment). The abdomen was smooth and shiny, tan-colored with a pale white stripe down the middle. It was not familiar to me either, but with a bit a research, its name (and fame) came to light.
It shouldn’t be surprising that I had not seen this spider, called a sowbug killer spider, very often, as it is a nocturnal hunter. By day, it stays hidden in a silken cocoon, which in the spring will house its eggs. And it is likely that this spider will not be happy with all of Rob’s lights, as it prefers the dark, coming out at night to find its prey.
With aliases that include woodlouse spider, sowbug hunter, and roly poly hunter, the sowbug killer spider captures and consumes those numerous, armored insects that are plentiful in wet and dark locales, such as Rob’s woodpile. Its scientific name also provides some insight into its character: “Dysdera crocota” describes an arachnid that is “hard to fight against.”
The sowbug killer doesn’t make or use a web to ensnare its prey. The spider’s weapon of choice is its large chelicerae, or fangs, that easily pierce the hard exoskeleton (shell) of the pill and sow bugs. Even small beetles are at risk, since this spider can easily eat them for supper. If you run into a sowbug killer spider under a dark woodpile, give it some space. Though you are not its favored snack, those fangs can pierce your skin and cause a minor rash.
Keep your eye on this spider, lest it sets its six sights on you. Unlike most spiders, which have eight eyes, the sowbug killer sees you through only six. These peepers are arranged in a semi-circle on the spider’s head.
Rob’s yard is not the only place that these crawlers are found. Native to the Mediterranean, they have spread throughout the world, likely hitchhiking in the wood that is home to its preferred prey. Nor is the holiday season the only time to see them. Though they will overwinter in the woodpile, spring will bring spiderlings that will reside with the parent in the silken cocoon until they can fend for themselves.
I will need some green to go with the red in order to get me thinking about the holidays. I’ll be sure to find it in Rob’s light display, along with all the other colors of the season. It’s a magical gift his family gives to the Island, but this naturalist is also grateful to him for the chance to familiarize myself with one of our more reclusive island “washashores.”
Please be sure to remember to bring a contribution to the Food Bank when you drop by Rob’s!
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.