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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

A crab spider can vary its color to fool prey. © Don Blegen

August 2003

A world in a leaf

Tiny spiders weave a niche in a few square inches.

Leroy Lintereur

A crab spider can vary its color to fool prey.

© Don Blegen

A leaf is always an object of interest, and I admire it as much as any flower. A leaf growing as it should is fine, but a leaf rolled, folded over or plastered to another is much better, a surprise package that might contain anything.

Well, not quite. It might be just a rolled up husk that contains nothing once the resident is long gone, leaving just a few strands of thread or perhaps the shred of a cocoon; mute evidence that the leaf was once the happy home of some animal.

No one need look far, particularly at this time of year, to find a leaf that is occupied. A caterpillar may be well on its way to becoming a moth, or maybe you'll find a colony of aphids, or above all, spiders.

These are not the big, dark creatures one sees scuttling along on the ground, or tucked away in some corner of the house. These are brightly colored. Some with a broad black stripe on white, rather like a skunk in reverse, others with an effect that can only be described as marble, and fine marble at that. Then there are those tinted with shades of emerald green, jet black or shades of blue. The combinations are endless and I cannot see why the butterflies and beetles have stolen the glory from them (as colorful insects) just because they are spiders.

Most spiders are small, so tiny that you need a magnifying glass to bring out their color and form, and of course, you have to make a special effort to find them.

And just as spiders are miniatures, so is their world. A bear may need the better part of a township, or a bobcat a swamp, but these creatures solve every problem that nature gives them with a leaf or two and a point two or three inches away to anchor their web. There are always enough mosquitoes and midges flying about to blunder into the little net that the spider sets up. All it has to do is wait and see what happens, certainly a simple enough life for such a complex creature. Despite the fact that spiders have eight eyes — and on the white ones these stand out like coals stuck in the head of a snowman — their world is limited to these few square inches of leaf and web.

I think spiders portray the concept of a niche, a place to live, to perfection. Any wild community is made up of a multitude of them. A deer may take up an entire woods, or a bird several acres. Then there are those animals that live in a mushroom, or under a stone, or prowl about in a bit of rotting log. The sum total of these makes up a woods or marsh or a field, all of them dependent ultimately on each other.

It has been said that there are sermons in stones. Indeed there are, and also in rotten wood, decaying mushrooms and in rolled up leaves.

The late Leroy Lintereur was a DNR wildlife manager from 1958-83. For 15 years, he wrote a weekly newspaper column that shared a respect and curiosity about the natural world. We are pleased to occasionally share some of his nature columns.