Recognizing Wolf Spiders

Spiders are arachnids which can be readily recognized by the presence of 8 legs (true for all arachnids including ticks, mites and daddylong legs) and the presence of spinnerets (true only for spiders). Not all spiders build webs (in fact, nearly half do not!) but all spiders do use silk. Most wolf spiders do not build webs, but they use silk to wrap their egg cases and to leave draglines or safety lines. Some males can follow a female's dragline.

There are about 34,000 named species of spiders in the world.
Some people estimate the total number to be closer to 170,000.
There are about 4000 named species of spiders in North America.

The surest way to recognize a wolf spider is by the general stout body shape, the eye arrangement and by the fact that they are usually not in a web. Their general body shape is somewhat stout with the cephalothorax and abdomen of about equal sizes. The legs also are stout, fairly even in length and strong enough to support the spiders weight. The legs can be compared to those of many web building spiders whose legs are much longer and thinner.

The eye arrangement is a good way to recognize a variety of spider families including the Lycosidae. Almost all spiders have eight eyes, although most spiders don't have particularly good eyesight. The eyes are most easily seen with a handlens or a dissecting microscope.

All eight eyes are visible from a front view

In wolf spiders, the anterior eyes are made up of 4 small eyes in a row, and the posterior eyes are 4 large eyes arranged in two rows. From a front view, you can see a row of 4 small anterior eyes with two larger eyes above them and 2 eyes further back on the head. The large eyes are significant in their behavior: wolf spiders do have good eyesight (especially for spiders) and use vision fairly extensively for prey capture, courtship and aggresive interactions. The posterior eyes give the spiders vision above them and behind them and are significant in avoiding predation or capture.

Finding and Collecting Wolf Spiders

Wolf spiders are common and abundant in a large number of habitats throughout the country. For many species, the habitat in which they are found is quite specific. There are over 2200 species in the family of wolf spiders world wide. Very little is known about most of them. Other spiders tend to be generalists. Keeping a good record of the habitat of where you find a specimen is an important way to build our knowledge about different species.

Wolf spiders can often be found hidden in leaves

Some of the places to look for wolf spiders include: grassy fields, lawns, leaf litter of woods and sometimes in houses and schools. Wolf spiders are active in the day and at night. To find them during the day, it is often best to go out when it is warm (60 degrees or higher) and simply walk slowly while looking down and watching for movement.

Some wolf spiders (the Geolycosa and others) build burrows and live in them. Finding these often requires learning how to look for the burrows with turrets. Often to find wolf spiders you can develop a search image for them and be able to find them in leaves and grass.

Spiders should be collected by catching them in a small jar or vial. Wolf spiders, like most spiders, have a venom. While it is not particularly toxic to people, the fangs can make a puncture wound which can cause an infection. It is usually possible to move the spiders into a jar or vial without handling them at all. Most wolf spiders cannot climb a smooth, vertical surface.

When collecting spiders, it is important to keep the spiders separated and have only one spider per jar. As they are carnivorous and cannibalistic and often hungry, putting more than one spider per vial or jar will result in smaller spiders getting eaten.

Wolf spiders can be found at night by using a headlamp to
see their eyeshine. Relatively few spiders have eyeshine.

At night, wolf spiders can be collected by taking advantage of their eyeshine. If you hold a flashlight or a headlamp up by your forehead, the light from the flashlight will reflect off of the tapetum located in the eyes of the spider (much as a cat's eyes reflect light).

What is a tapetum? It is a layer of reflective cells in the back of the eyes that functions to increase the amount of light hitting the retina of the spider. Relatively few spider families have a tapetum, and thus using eyeshine is often an excellent way to find wolf spiders. Other families in the US that have eyeshine include the Pisauridae or the fishing spiders. Some crab spiders also have eyeshine.

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