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Research Day: Texas

All questions inspired by my recent trip to Corpus Christi.

Are those man-o-wars that wash up on the beach goners, or do they just hang tight until the tide carries them out to sea again? I checked about a dozen pages, but none of them mentioned what happens to man-of-wars once they're beached. Eventually it occurred to me that this probably means they die -- after all, if they didn't die it surely would have been noted on at least one of the sites.

Finally, I came across this page, which states: "Once it beaches itself, all of the organisms that make up the man-of-war quickly die except for the organism that control the stinging cells. A beached man-of-war can still emit its stinging cells if someone comes in contact with its nearly invisible tentacles." You gotta like a critter with a built-in Doomsday device.

What's up with that squiggly line on the spider web? Before I start my research, I'd like to publicly state my hypothesis: the squiggly line serves as a "DO NOT FLY THROUGH WEB" sign to birds. Let's see if I'm close.

My first step was to find out the name. (Searching Google for "squiggly line spider" wasn't doing the trick.) I did so via the usual scientific method: I had my wife ask her coworker to ask his spider-owning partner what the hell the thing is called. The answer: the stabilimentum.

So right there it looked like my hypothesis was shot -- with a name like that it's obviously for stabilization, right? Maybe not. While the person who named the thing assumed stabilization was its function, contemporary arachnologist aren't so sure. In fact, they don't seem to really know what it's for. But here are some of the the leading ideas (mostly taken from here):

  • It's camouflage Frankly I'm unsure how that would work. After all, my hypothesis is predicated on the notion that the stabilimentum makes the web stand out, not blend in. But the premise of the camouflage hypothesis is that it disguises the spider instead of the web. Somehow.
  • It serves as a warning to birds Ha! I knew it. But one page also notes "it also makes the web more obvious to those birds who are fond of eating spiders." Uhh ... I guess that's true, now, innit?
  • It's the ol' 'I'm A Stick' gambit Bugs think the stabilimentum is a stick and land on it. No one seemed too enthusiastic about this explanation.
  • It's a beacon The stabilimentum reflects ultraviolet light better than ordinary webbing, and UV attracts insects who mistake it for the sunlight they navigate by. This is given somewhat more credence than the "stick" hypothesis, above.
  • It's a Hummer! The stabilimentum is just the arachnid version of a Hummer: a big, flashy mate-attractor that screams "I have so many resources I can afford to squander them on this useless thing!"
Almost every page I read about the stabilimentum concluded with some variation on the line "it probably exists for a combination of the above reasons," which, as we all know, is science-code for "I have no idea what it does."

As an aside, doesn't "StabiliMentum" sound like a bogus "rebranding" name some marketing weasel would come up for Enron? "It shows that we've got stability, right? That we're rock solid, that we're not going anywhere. But also that we're moooving -- get it? That we've got momentum. Picture the ads: 'StabiliMentum: We're Balancing Our Books. Honestly.'"

What the hell is a "F.M." road? Driving to the sea, we spent a lot of time on FM roads, e.g. "F.M. 2292." Here in Washington we have "I" roads (Interstate) and "SR" roads (State Route) and even "FS" roads out in the wilderness (Forest Service),, but an "F.M." road was new to us. At first we guessed the "F" stood for "Federal," but couldn't come up with an "M". Finally, noting that these roads traveled through the back-country, we decided that "F.M." was simply an abbreviation for "Farm" -- but the presence of a period between the F and M gave us the sneaking suspicion we were wrong.

So, I looked it up. And the answer is ... FM = Farm to Market road. "The system of Texas Farm-to-Market Roads was created to provide access to the rural areas of the state ... The name is derived from the intended use of the roads: farmers bringing their goods to market in the cities." Damn, so close.

Posted on November 19, 2003 to Research Day


You're lucky you didn't get the hell stung out of you by those jellyfish. I'm from Corpus and those things lurk where you don't expect them.

Posted by: Anne on November 19, 2003 2:24 PM

yah. when you said "hummer" i went straight to the oral/non-tank reference and started wondering how a spider would give or receive a blog job. got over that one quickly i did.

Posted by: kat on November 19, 2003 10:19 PM

Another Corpus native here (though currently in exile in Cincinnati). Concidentally you and I were both vacationing in Corpus at the same time. Couple of quick observations:

Man-o-war - Yes, they were miserable! Their sting is horrible and the only relief comes from pouring bleach over the sting (which kills the stinging cells). I learned something about them on this trip. For the first time ever I watched one who'd just washed up on the beach and had not yet died. Apparently they are able to flex their bubble! It looked similiar to a giant worm and was obviously a deliberate act. This was the first time I'd seen that in the thousand or so dead ones I've come across over the years.

Development - Corpus is a moderate sized city (200,000 or so) but is laid out strangely. Nearly all of the major commercial development was built in a single 10 mile strip along SPID. This produced an ugly, overdeveloped, and difficult to navigate nightmare and I doubt I'll ever understand exactly why it was done. However, outside of that particular stretch you'll be hard pressed to find much of anything save for Whataburgers (Mmmmm... whataburgers!) and the odd HEB. On the bright side this allows the pretty areas to be very pretty in their own South-Texas way such as the bayfront or quaint little Flour Bluff.

Dirty Beach - It's a shame you had the bad experience of Mustang Island. On a good day it isn't bad but on a bad it's oh-so-bad. Unfortunately Mustang Island is a target party beach being close enough to Port A for the tourists but far enough for semi-privacy. Kleeberg county beach (shortly past Bob Hall pier in Padre Bali park) is a good example of a not so well cleaned beach (ie still sea weed etc.) but very little garbage. Hopefully you got a change to visit the national seashore which has the best maintained beaches.

Ugh, I'm sounding like a tour guide now so I'll cut this here. I hope you enjoyed yourself!

Posted by: Matt on November 20, 2003 5:25 AM

Why don't Man-o-wars get the same love that whales do? I don't see people gathering to push a beached man-o-war back out to sea.

Posted by: Straif on November 20, 2003 6:24 AM

I was thinking the same thing as Straif. During one Gulf Shores beach trip thousands of jellyfish of some type (pink with what looked like a four-pack plastic ring inside) were washed up. There was a lone old guy with a shovel tossing them back into the ocean. I thought it was pretty nice of him. I guess man-o-wars with their long-as-heck tentacles would be harder to toss without getting hit...

Posted by: Parker on November 20, 2003 7:43 AM

Yup, what the heck does "FM" mean was one of the very first questions I asked upon arriving in Howston Texass.

As for the spider web, who knows about the stitch, but there are some spiders in Costa Rica that look like bird crap. Now that is cool!

Posted by: ranger on November 20, 2003 8:01 AM

That stabilo... spider thing: I had a bio teacher once tell us that in the spiders he had studied, they built their web with that squiggle at the top, and then everyone (bug foods included) didn't fly into the web for a few days. THEN! The web gets rebuilt, with the squiggle at the bottom, and all the bugs who had been saying to themselves, "OK, go up over the squiggle" landed smack dab in the middle of the web. DUnno if it's true, but it's a neat idea.

Posted by: leen on November 20, 2003 9:39 AM

and i thought i was the only one who was a overtly-literal-googler

if its a squiggly spider line it should be FOUND UNDER SQUIGGLY SPIDER LINE

Posted by: lisa on November 20, 2003 10:41 AM

*shudder* did anyone else convulse and lose their bowels seeing that man-o-war picture? no, just me? okay. those things are hideous and if i had the balls to not run away screaming i would just beat it continually to kill it further for being so frickin' icky.

Posted by: livie on November 20, 2003 12:25 PM

Way to get some knowledge! I feel so lame. I get confused by weird things and then just accept them as eternal mysteries forever. I never bother googling.

Good practice for being a Dad though, Matt.

Posted by: Miel on November 21, 2003 1:33 AM

That spider was definitely trying to tell you something. Haven't you read Charlotte's Web? He just hasn't got the kinks worked out of his cursive just yet.

Posted by: Clark on November 21, 2003 7:38 AM

FWIW, I've seen a film where they showed a flower under UV light and then the stabilimentum, and the patterns on the flowers looked very similar. We were told that some flowers have a distinct ultraviolet marking that leads pollinators to the naughty parts. Your botanist lady should know more about that than I, though. I only heard the bug's side of the story.

Posted by: entomology geek on November 21, 2003 10:18 AM

Oh, and re: spider camoflauge, it makes sense, as most insect eyes rely on contrast to form a picture (both simple and compound eyes work this way...the idea of kaleidoscope eyes is sort of a myth). If the spider is the only solid object on the web, insects will see, recognize, and avoid. But if something solid is "attached" to the spider, what an insect would usually recognize as "predator" becomes "stick and leaf" or something similarly unrecognizable and innocuous.

Posted by: entomology geek on November 21, 2003 10:34 AM

Its obviously a tag like a graffiti artist uses. Since spiders have eyes over top of each other instead of just side to side, they read vertically. Yours says "by RAF props to JBH Peace Out!"

Posted by: Brian on November 21, 2003 12:36 PM

maybe it's where the spider wipes off his/her silk shooter after making the web. surely after shooting out silk for an hour or so, there's bound to be a little leakage or schmearage on his butt.

Posted by: ChrisL on November 24, 2003 7:22 AM


Posted by: hkjh' on November 27, 2003 2:20 PM