A chance sighting of a beautiful, tiny spider in Steve Woodman’s backyard in Wingham has evolved into a passion for locating – and potentially classifying – our area’s miniature Arachnid specimens. This passion has led Steve to produce a book, “There’s a Crab Spider in My Backyard”. There’s no doubt about Steve’s skill with macro photography either … His photos highlight a whole hidden world most of us would never even realise existed in our gardens!
Hi Steve. How did you come to call the Manning area home?
I made the “tree change” over twelve years ago, and it was the best decision I’ve ever made. I immediately fell in love with Wingham: fantastic people, a wonderful lifestyle, and with the river a stone’s throw away, I can kayak whenever the mood takes me.
Where did the interest in photography begin for you?
I remember as a child playing with Mum and Dad’s Kodak Box Brownie, and my first camera was a Kodak Instamatic. So, it appears that I have always had a fascination with photography. It has only since moving to the beautiful Manning that I’ve taken it more seriously.
Macro photography in particular became a fascination, and I went to Alan Small at the Taree Camera House for advice. Alan is an icon in the photographic world, and I was so lucky to benefit from his knowledge and expertise, and through him I secured my first Digital SLR and macro lens.
In 2016, you found what is believed to be a new species of Crab Spider in your backyard. This leads to a few questions! Firstly, HOW did you find this arachnid (what were you doing at the time)?
There is a whole other world in miniature in everyone’s backyard. Since moving to Wingham, I’d been photographing the surprising variety of insects and spiders living in my garden. One morning I spied in the Murraya hedge I have next to my laundry door the most amazing spider …
Tell us more about this particular spider you found … What did it look like? And why are they called “Crab Spiders”?
It was tiny, with a body less than 5 mm long. It had a green carapace, and on its white abdomen there were green and cherry dots arranged in a face-like pattern. I’d never seen the like, and as I watched, it slid sideways into its retreat between two overlapping leaves. It moved ever so gracefully, like a figure skater on ice, and I was hooked!
Crab spiders resemble crabs in that their two front pairs of legs are longer and arranged in a laterigrade fashion, which allows them to move sideways.
Crab Spiders do not build capture webs like other spiders. Instead, they ambush their prey and are known as “sit and wait” predators. They appear fragile, but are capable of taking down all sorts of prey much bigger than they are, including wasps and cockroaches. They are important ecological players, managing the insect population the natural way.
Why did you decide to get this particular species of spider identified, and what expert did you contact?
I do like to put names to things, and after surfing the web (sorry about the pun!) I could find nothing like it. The closest resemblance I found was with a spider of the genus Poeceliothomisus on a website named arachne.org created by Robert Whyte, a researcher with the Queensland Museum. So, I sent the photo to Robert, asking if my find was related.
What was the result of this communication; does the spider species now have its own classification/name?
It is a bit of a saga, but goes to illustrate the difficulty in identifying these spiders at the species level.
Robert quickly responded to my email, suggesting it may indeed be a species of the genus Poeceliothomisus, a genus which was thought to have only one member speciosus. Now, the thought that I had discovered a new species drove me to purchase every book on Australian spiders there is.
In 1980, Ramon Mascord published photos of spiders similar to mine, but named it Diaea punctata. Robert believed this was a clear misidentification, and this naming confusion had been compounded by a recent major reclassification at the genus level.
So while this spider was already known, it had been misnamed for many years. Robert suggests it could be a new genus of Crab Spider altogether, which is wildly exciting, and it now goes by the generic Thomisus sp., until specimens can be examined microscopically, and a more precise determination can be made.
On the other hand, another Crab Spider I’ve found and nicknamed Leopard is clearly different from other known members of the genus Australomisidia, and is likely a new species.
You’ve since unearthed other Crab Spider species in Wingham. How many different types do you believe you’ve discovered?
I must admit I’m a little uncomfortable with the word “discovered”. These spiders have been around for millions of years, and other people have no doubt seen and even photographed them. However, I am pleased that I have brought these beautiful spiders to the notice of science, and I encourage others to do the same and join the growing army of citizen scientists.
There are 23 genera of Crab Spiders in Australia, with 122 described species. The taxonomy, or classification, of Australian spiders is in a state of flux. Crab Spiders are difficult to name at the species level just by looking at them. Microscopic examination of the genitalia is needed to definitively identify a species, and for this reason there are many known spiders so far undescribed scientifically, as well as many more which are currently unknown and waiting to be brought to the attention of science.
I send photographs of the interesting ones to Robert to get his opinion on what they may be related to. In addition to the Leopard, I’ve nicknamed other undescribed species I’ve found in Wingham by the tasty nicknames of Cherry Pastry, Skinny Cherry Pasty, and Pancake, as well as others belonging to Sidymella and Thomisus.
Just this weekend I found what looks like a new species in Black Head, which I thought at first resembled a Boomerangia, but Robert disagrees. So I’ve nicknamed it Munch, as the pattern on its back resembles the painting The Scream, by Edvard Munch.
Your work with these spiders led you to producing a book, There’s a Crab Spider in My Backyard. How is this book laid out/formatted – will it help most nature enthusiasts identify Crab Spiders on their own turf?
The book is 180 pages, with over 350 full colour photographs. Tracey Stevenson at Artworkn has done a fabulous job with the layout. The focus of the book are the photographs (I really must stop these puns!) with just enough text to briefly describe where to find them, what they eat, their life cycle from spiderling to mature adult, and the perilous journey they make between the two states.
Photographing them has its challenges; they are tiny creatures to start with, and wonderfully camouflaged, and being predators they have reasonable eyesight – so they can see you coming, and they will hide!
There is a chapter on tips and tricks on photographing them. I must emphasise that being an amateur, I’m still learning, and I encourage other photographers to treat it as an adventure and have as much fun with it as I do.
What camera/lenses did you use to capture the amazing photos in your book?
The equipment I’ve been using has quickly evolved since 2016. Initially I was using a Nikon D60 digital SLR, with a 60 mm Micro-NIKKOR lens, but as these creatures are tiny, I was not getting the crisp shots that I wanted, so with Alan Small’s advice I upgraded to a Nikon D7200, equipped with a Nikon A1C1 Speedlight flash unit.
The Speedlight flash unit is a wonderful bit of kit, as it throws a lot of light on to the subject, which is often hiding deep inside the foliage, and as the Speedlights are adjustable, you can change the angle of the light as well.
Where can we get our hands on a copy of your work?
Wingham News Agency has kindly offered to put the book on their shelves. The book should be ready for sale from mid October.
What’s next on your agenda … Are you still looking for different species of arachnids in your own backyard, or working on other projects?
My passion for these wonderful creatures has not abated, and I’ve set myself the task of cataloguing the enormous variety of Crab Spiders living in the Manning. I’ve photographed over 500 individuals from almost twenty genera so far. Several thousand of my photographs can be found on my Facebook page: www.facebook.com/MygardenThomisidae/
I’m sure there are new ones to be found, and I’m embarking on a five year project to put together a comprehensive book on these little beauties. So don’t be surprised if you see me out and about, camera in hand, peering intently at a leaf.