Mantispids have the most amazing lifecycle of any creature on earth. Period.

newly hatched mantispid larvae await the ride of their lives

..but I would love to be convinced that there is something even cooler.  The larvae of the order Neuroptera have the most incredible repertoire of ambush predation…someday I hope to illustrate the best of them!

This illustration was by far for me the most fascinating to research and I learned about this creature in so many ways, on so many disparate levels.  It could very well be the coolest creature on our planet today.

I feel bad for the spiders, but all life on the planet is preyed on from microbes or fungus on up at some point in their existence.

let me know what you think!  or if you know of other crazy relationships among insects and spiders!

tenderly feeding from within the protected eggsac 

the poetic precision of a leaping salticid (aka jumping spider)

I did this image of a salticid, (also known as a jumping spider), in mid flight. What is coolest about it is that it is from a vantage point that you could never really photograph.   They are one of the many cool spiders that DO NOT make webs to catch prey, but are inquisitive, extremely intelligent, active hunters that launch themselves airborne onto their unsuspecting prey.

Don’t get me wrong, I love my web-bound spiders.  But that they normally rely on vibrations and not visual cues means that evolution has dealt them a hand of very poor vision.  Salticids, at the opposite end of the spectrum, have evolved one of their pairs of “median” eyes to become greatly enlarged, so they have incredible vision.  While jumping spiders cannot move their whole eyes independently, they can move the retinas of their Anterior Median eyes.  They cannot focus, but their movable retinas  increase their field of vision.

They are also known for their deft ability to learn and solve problems in approaching prey.  Often in search of the best angle to approach their unsuspecting prey,  salticids, (specifically Portias) have been observed taking such far flung routes to reach the prey that they break visual contact with it!   check out this wikipedia description on Portias:   http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Portia_%28genus%29

In making this illustration, the most difficult part was figuring out the posture of the legs.  You can imagine how impossible it is to observe a jumping spider in mid-flight…just watching one move from place to place, it happens so fast you never even see the inbetween, just poof! and its on the next leaf.  I am lucky enough to have captured a partial stereo image of a jumping spider jumping toward the lens bracket of my macro camera!  So I was able to use it, and other generalized illustrations, like in Rainier Foelix’s book on spiders, to come up with this illustration.  I loved doing it, and hope to illustrate many more salticids.

Illustrating a tiny, tiny spider for the Cal Academy

This extremely tiny spider (~1mm across!)  is called Silhouettella assumptia and is from an elusive and little known family of spiders called Oonopidae.  They are known to lay people as the “goblin” spiders, but to latin linguists in labcoats the Oonopidae means egg-eyes.

3/4 view of the Oonopid Silhouettella assumptia

Illustrating a  spider requires special techniques.  They are different from insects in that their exoskeletons aren’t as hard all around- many parts will shrivel up so they must be stored in alcohol.  That’s why you don’t see all the gorgeous spiders of the world mounted in cases next to insects in Natural History museums!  (…but not to discredit the world’s bias for insects and against all things arachnid- it is real!!  you must teach the next generation to love them!)  For example if you try to dry and mount a spider, likely the abdomen will quickly resemble a raisin.  A terrible inconvenience.

For this project I had to keep the specimen submerged in liquid so that it wouldn’t dry out, and surprisingly (to me) sand is used at the bottom of the liquid petri dish to help steady it.  This enables me to study under a stereo microscope and a powerful light.   I also had access to “stacked focus” digital images if many different angles.  I had the experts around me at the Cal Academy to help me come up with the illustrated posture, (and crucially) the relative lengths of the legs.

I rendered the image in gouache, and stroked the many different colored hairs in colored pencil right over the paint…a great combination!   The original drop shadow I painted underneath was quite disappointing, so I opted to make a subtle digital one instead.

Are there any other spider lovers out there on the WWW?