Keeping the stabilimentum stable

It was just the suddenness of the face-to-face that surprised me.

Well, it’s erroneous to speak of an eye-to-eye for, in all honesty, I never saw the spider’s face, much less any sign of an eyeball.

After writing a number of columns on spiders and a marvelous researcher, I felt I knew enough. I know my research made me sympathetic to the point I try not to harm any and earnestly apologize when I do.

At about the time my columns were appearing, a naive granddaughter Facebooked her boast of having smashed one, hurrah! I didn’t hesitate to tell her of all the spiderly benefits of keeping them around. I hope my words sank in.

Yes, I do know many women (and a few men) are terrified of the little beasties. But, no, I cannot rationally explain why. They’re tiny. Fortunately. And they go quietly about their business – eating all those bugs we don’t like – and certainly never try to annoy.

Still, this is not to be another column on spiders per se. I promised.

With just one exception . . . the stabilimentum.

No, don’t go looking it up. It isn’t in any dictionary I found. In fact, I only knew its name because of a catalogue advertisement.

Bet you have seen them . . . if you count as I do examining spider webs among the other treasures of nature. If so, you may well have seen a squiggly very thick zigzag in the center part of the hanging web. As much as anything it looks as if someone took a sewing machine and stitched a closed buttonhole right down its middle.

My catalogue was selling imitation stabilimenta to place on large windows as a means of keeping those birds (and we all know who they are) from flying into the glass. Seems they are smart enough to recognize the pattern as a hazard and so thus avoid it. The figuring goes that the spiders devised this clever sign as a way of keeping birds from zooming right through their carefully constructed nets. I wouldn’t want to have to do it over any more often than absolutely necessary either for, as I recall, webs are sticky on purpose.

The Internet naturally had lots to say on the subject and didn’t hesitate to point out my errors. First, there are stabilimenta that aren’t zigzaggy. One looks like a shell with the zigzags in three-dimensional circles and another actually has them running around a spiral. Mine are in a line. There are some very talented spiders out there.

When all is read and done, however, the consensus seems to be that nobody really knows why the spider builds these things. Or perhaps, as suggested, there are as many answers as there are web designs. Some of the reasons offered include camouflage though most people-observers feel it’s a pretty lame device for spider hiding. Perhaps it is to warn the birds. But then again, there are those birds that eat spiders so advertising their presence seems more than a little foolhardy.

It was also suggested it might be something done under stress. Hmm, sounds like spiders have to put up with that occasionally too. Or it could be the reverse: they find it aesthetically pleasing. I like that for I know the joy I find in creating something new.

Another theory suggests that the female, having done her arty best, is ready to meet her mate and is advertising in a most acceptable way. Does she not know what happens afterwards? Or does she hope the stabilimentum will be her legacy?

Then there are spiders (perhaps even closely related) who attach bits of uneaten prey to their webs. This is supposed to help her attract even bigger and better things.

I certainly don’t know. But I do know I’ll have a lot more to think about next time I see one of these webs.

Another of nature’s joys. And mysteries.

Susan Crossett is a Cassadaga resident. Send comments to editorial@observertoday.com