“When I first saw it,” said Park Superintendent Donna Garde, “I was totally amazed. What ran through my mind was that this looked like something out of a low-budget horror movie, but I was looking at something five times as big as what you’d see on a Hollywood set.”
Stumped as to the web’s origin, the initial consensus of arachnologists and entomologists who saw an online photo of the web sent by Texas Parks and Wildlife Department biologist Mike Quinn was that it may have resulted from a “mass dispersal” event. In such an event, millions of tiny spiders or spiderlings spin out silk filaments to ride air currents in a phenomenon known as “ballooning.”
Quinn collected a sample of spiders Aug. 31 from in and around the gigantic web and took them to Texas A&M University in College Station for analyses. Entomology Department researcher Allen Dean identified 11 spider families from the sample. The most prevalent species was the Tetragnatha guatemalensis, or what Quinn dubbed the Guatemalan long-jawed spider, since this species didn’t have a common name. Guatemala was the country in which it was first documented.
“I drove 50 to 100 spiders to A&M on Saturday,” Quinn said. “Spider experts tend to specialize in one or few families of spiders. There are nearly 900 species of spiders known from Texas, so no one is an expert on all the species.”
Quinn described the Lake Tawakoni web as “sheet webbing” since it covers a large area of trees, which is more typical of a web spun by a funnel web spider rather than the classic Charlotte’s web, or orb web, like that produced by long-jawed spiders. He speculates that the park’s spider population exploded due to wet conditions this summer that resulted in an abundance of midges and other a small insects upon which the spiders feed.
The Guatemalan long-jawed spider ranges from Canada to Panama, and even the islands of the Caribbean. According to Quinn, the spider is about an inch in length with a reddish-orange head- and-thorax. Spiders, like mites and scorpions, are arachnids, a group of arthropods with four pairs of legs, saclike lungs and a body divided into two segments.
So popular was the monster Lake Tawakoni spider web phenomenon that it ran as the lead story in the Nation section of the Aug. 31 New York Times, and was the newspaper’s most e-mailed article that day. The nightmarish quality of the story prompted satirical takes on several Internet Web sites and led to national coverage on Fox News, the Discovery Channel, CNN and other networks. Quinn termed the degree of news coverage “remarkable.”
Dr. Norman Horner, a retired dean of the College of Science and Mathematics at Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls, was on his way to the park mid-week to study the “not very common” phenomenon, when he received a call from park staff telling him that a heavy overnight rainstorm had made the trail impassable and knocked down much of the giant web.
“So far,” Horner said, “we have been informed of webs of this nature occurring in Florida, California, Canada, Italy, Ohio and now Texas. In all cases, they appear to have been produced by tetragnathids, but have other species associated with them.”
Superintendent Garde said Sept. 5 that the crowds coming to see the wondrous creation had slowed to a trickle, and that they were not being allowed to access the nature trail due to the sloppy conditions.
“It was fun, but we were really tired,” Garde said. “The spiders are great little guys. They put our park on the map.”