Shelob, shorelines and sandy spiders

Anoteropsis litoralis, a wolf spider found in seashore stormwrack. Image from Bryce McQuillan (contact him for using his images)

One has to wonder whether Tolkien had a fear of spiders. From Shelob in the Rings trilogy, to Ungoliant in the Simarillion, to the giant spiders of Mirkwood, spiders are feared and major protagonists throughout his tales.

Tolkien was bitten by a South African tarantula when a young boy. These are very aggressive and bitey spiders. He later vowed that this did not put him off spiders and that he only put them in stories to scare his son Michael. However, it’s hard to think that someone who created the character of Shelob did not have a teeny bit of anxiety about our eight-legged friends.

Tolkien and a spider…..

A little way ahead and to his left he saw suddenly, issuing from a black hole of shadow under the cliff, the most loathly shape that he had ever beheld, horrible beyond the horror of an evil dream. Most like a spider she was, but huger than the great hunting beasts, and more terrible than they because of the evil purpose in her remorseless eyes. Those same eyes that he had thought daunted and defeated, there they were lit with a fell light again, clustering in her out-thrust head. Great horns she had, and behind her short stalk-like neck was her huge swollen body, a vast bloated bag, swaying and sagging between her legs; its great bulk was black, blotched with livid marks, but the belly underneath was pale and luminous and gave forth a stench. Her legs were bent, with great knobbed joints high above her back, and hairs that stuck out like steel spines, and at each leg’s end there was a claw.” The Two Towers

Despite the odd dragon, cave troll, balrog and Watcher in the Water, there are very few ‘monsters’ in Middle-earth. But there are lots of giant spiders. In The Hobbit Bilbo really shows his growth as a character when he saves the dwarves from the giant spiders of Mirkwood. Again they are not described in a friendly light. “Suddenly he saw, too, that there were spiders huge and horrible sitting in the branches above him, and ring or no ring he trembled with fear lest they should discover him. Standing behind a tree he watched a group of them for some time, and then in the silence and stillness of the wood he realised that these loathsome creatures were speaking one to another. Their voices were a sort of thin creaking and hissing, but he could make out many of the words that they said. They were talking about the dwarves! “It was a sharp struggle, but worth it,” said one. “What nasty thick skins they have to be sure, but I’ll wager there is good juice inside.”” -The Hobbit

In The Silmarillion, Tolkien’s attempt to provide a mythology for Middle-earth (and soon to provide material for a Middle-earth TV series), there is a great power, Ungoliant, effectively a deity of darkness, emptiness and hunger, who has a monstrous spider form. “In a ravine she [Ungoliant] lived, and took shape as a spider of monstrous form, weaving her black webs in a cleft of the mountains. There she sucked up all light that she could find, and spun it forth again in dark nets of strangling gloom, until no light more could come to her abode; and she was famished.” The Silmarillion

Ungoliant, aids Melkor (Morgoth), effectively the fallen angel of Middle-Earth, to destroy the Great Trees that provide light for the world. They later argue, as evil creatures are prone to do, and Ungoliant flees to Beleriand to lick her wounds and give birth to many giant spiders, including Shelob.

A wolf spider nicely camouflaged in the sand. Image from Bryce McQuillan (contact him for using his images)

When Tolkien wanted to portray cunning, dangerous otherness he usually went for spiders. Spiders do not merely inhabit an area, they change it into something unpleasant. They are a sign that all is not well.

As with most things, Tolkien put a lot of thought into his spiders. They were not all the same. More importantly, especially for this biogeographer, there were different types of spiders in different habitats. There were small spider species that lived in the uppermost canopy leaves. “In the end he poked his head above the roof of leaves, and then he found spiders all right. But they were only small ones of ordinary size, and they were after the butterflies.” The Hobbit

Larger spiders lived nearer ground level where trunks could support their weight. “The spiders saw the sword, though I don’t suppose they knew what it was, and at once the whole lot of them came hurrying after the hobbit along the ground and the branches, hairy legs waving, nippers and spinners snapping, eyes popping, full of froth and rage.” The Hobbit

Shelob, even larger, lived away from the forests, and was found in alpine areas with caves. Ungoliant, monstrously larger, was also an alpine specialist.

Cor Vink searching for katipo near Birdlings Flat. Picture from Adrian Paterson

Tolkien even recognised that these species could sometimes be found out of their normal areas (termed vagrant species) where they could hybridise with the local species that lived in vegetated valleys. “With their whips of flame [the balrogs] smote asunder the webs of Ungoliant, and she quailed, and turned to flight, belching black vapours to cover her; and fleeing from the north she went down into Beleriand, and dwelt beneath Ered Gorgoroth, in that dark valley that was after called Nan Dungortheb, the Valley of Dreadful Death, because of the horror that she bred there. For other foul creatures of spider form had dwelt there since the days of the delving of Angband, and she mated with them, and devoured them; and even after Ungoliant herself departed, and went whither she would into the forgotten south of the world, her offspring abode there and wove their hideous webs.” The Silmarillion

Distribution, where we actually find individuals, is a vital piece of information that we need to know about species. In New Zealand, we have many species whose distribution is not fully (or even partially mapped). One group where many species are poorly known is the spiders. While we don’t have the giant spiders of Middle-earth we do have some fearsome species. For example, Dolomedes schauinslandi, the Rangatira spider, is quite a shock if you come across one unexpectedly.

Simon after a hard day’s searching on the beach. Image from Simon Hodge.

Cor Vink, our new entomology lecturer, and Simon Hodge set out to find out what spider species were found on beaches, especially at the strand line, around Banks Peninsula. Strand lines are a part of the habitat that are at the edge of things and often accumulate vagrant species who have been blown or washed up there. Beaches in these areas are also the home of the endangered katipo spider species.

[In typical New Zealand fashion there is a good Tolkien link here. Shelob was based on the NZ black tunnelweb (Porrhothele antipodiana). The extra fangs were a Peter Jackson modification, and the stinger, was Tolkien’s (spiders don’t have stings…. although sting in old English, which Tolkien knew intimately, can mean bite, so maybe that is what he was implying).]  

Cor and Simon searched the strand line of 35 different beaches around Banks Peninsula. They spent 30 minutes hand searching each of these areas and collecting the spiders that they found. They summarise their findings in the New Zealand Journal of Zoology.

A third of the time the intrepid duo found no spiders. Overall, 38 species were found but most had low occurrence and numbers. Typically, only 1.5 species were found at each site and about half of the species were only found at one location. Given their search effort, they were reasonably confident that they had found most of the species that were present.

Some species were more widespread. Two introduced species were found over 20 times, Steatoda capensis and Tenuiphantes tenuis, and native species Otagoa nova, and the wolf spiders, which sounds very Tolkien-ish, Anoteropsis litoralis and Anoteropsis hilaris were found over 15 times. The type of beach; shingle, boulder, sand; did not affect the species numbers found.

Beach wrack – temporary accommodation for spiders. Image from Simon Hodge.

What does this mean for spiders in New Zealand? Even in a harsh habitat at the sea’s edge, there are spiders living and hunting around the driftwood, drying seaweed and plastic buoys. There are few specialists in the seashore region, aside from species like katipo, and probably no species that live all of their lives in the storm-wrack of beaches.

Invasive species are common, just like in most habitats. Some of these invaders are out-competing our endemics, such as Steatoda, found at 17 beaches, with katipo, found only at four beaches. However, katipo are very much dune specialists and may not venture into the wrack very often, so this absence may not tell us much about whether they katipo are found at these beaches.

It’s not all doom and gloom. Otagoa nova, was not thought to be very common in Canterbury but was the most observed native spider, indicating that in-depth searching can show that species are not as limited in distribution as we have thought.

Knowledge is power and knowing which species are present in an area allows us to identify threats and manage problems. Cor’s aim is to find all of the species of spider living in New Zealand and to map their distribution. I’m not sure that even Cor would like to find a real Shelob and I’m confident that this is something that Tolkien would not have been comfortable with.

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