Miss Muffett and the Spider I

Little Miss Muffett
Sat on a tuffet
Eating her curds and whey.
Along came a spider
And sat down beside her
And frightened Miss Muffett away.

In this familiar nursery rhyme we glimpse an interaction between two creatures. The interaction was certainly significant to one of the participants, Miss Muffett, in that the presence of the spider had an immediate impact on the her thoughts and actions. While we could explore Miss Muffett's behavior further, I will leave that aspect of the interaction to the reader - after all, this is the ``Bug Column''. Instead, I would like to investigate the impact, if any, of Miss Muffett's actions on the spider.

Was the spider's presence in this area at that time unusual? We know nothing about where Miss Muffett was sitting except that she was on her tuffet. Perhaps she was sitting near a spider colony - judging from her reaction this seems unlikely. She could have been under a tree however and many spiders like to build webs or prowl around in trees. In fact, as we all know, she could have been almost anywhere.

Was the spider's behavior abnormal? I assume that the spider approached along the ground otherwise different words would have been more appropriate to describe the spider's arrival. Spiders, especially those that do not build webs, do move around a lot. Green Lynx Spiders and Crab Spiders wait patiently in and near flower heads to attack visiting insects. Some, like the Jumping Spiders, can stalk their prey. Perhaps this spider was hunting or relocating. Spiders, especially the males, often need to move to find mates.

Why did the spider pick this spot when it could have sat anywhere? Consider the following question. When you enter a movie theater (or any other spot with no reserved seating) how do you establish where you will sit? Suppose you are the first to arrive. You will pick your favorite seat. The next people will take their favorite seats as long as they are not yet taken. Since many people have similar preferences they will tend to clump at first. Eventually as the seating fills up the clumping may become unnoticeable. The late comers will take the best seats they can. After the show has started, many people will take the first seats they find whether or not they are very good. Everyone will get a seat - everyone will have neighbors - some will be good, others won't - some will be restless, others will be still and so on. In other words, in the community of the audience, there will be small communities, or neighborhoods, each with their own distinctive flavors amidst some overall atmosphere. Is this spider necessarily any different from you? Well for one thing, it can't see as far, so having found a satisfactory location, why should it move on. The spider is undoubtedly more sensitive to its environment than we are (its decisions have a stronger life or death aspect) and its needs are satisfied at the moment.

This does raise an interesting point. Barring some malevolent motive often attributed to insects and other creepy-crawlers, has the presence of Miss Muffett somehow altered the environment enough to affect this spider's actions? If so, how? Think about it.

(to be continued)

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Ron Lyons (volunteer 1990-1999)
Chula Vista Nature Center, 1000 Gunpowder Point Drive, Chula Vista, CA 91910-1201