Snow spiders

Snow spider found in Earthquake Park in sub-freezing temperatures.





With less than an hour until sunset on the last day of November, it appeared that my long monthly streak of seeing “bugs” moving about the Anchorage landscape, whatever the season, was about to end. For the first time in nearly a decade, a month would pass without any local living insect or arachnid revealing itself to me “out in nature.”

Then, as if by magic, a small spider—one that could easily perch on the tip of my pinky—appeared on the snow while I walked along Earthquake Park’s “Inside the Slide” network of trails in west Anchorage.

I bent down for a closer look at the spider, which remained still among the freshly deposited snowflakes. Then I took a photo with my iPhone, to document its presence and the date: Nov. 30, 2021.

I was pretty darn certain the motionless spider was alive—it would have to be for my streak to continue—but to be sure I removed my mitten and gently transferred the tiny creature from snow to bare hand, expecting that my body warmth would stir the spider, get it moving. And it did.

The spider unfolded its legs (it had balled up when I touched its body) and slowly crossed the palm of my right hand toward my fingers, then halted. I took a short video of its crawl across my skin for further documentation, to later share with Jan Myers, before carefully placing the spider atop a tree stump that I had cleared of snow.

Whether or how the spider would survive the snowy, 25-degree weather, I couldn’t say. But I was grateful—and, to be honest, rather amazed—that our paths had briefly crossed and that this tiny, dark speck of life had gained my attention.

I suppose most folks would consider all of this over-the-top behavior. But as I’ve noted in previous City Wilds columns, documenting the year-round outdoor activity of the spiders, midges, and other “bugs” (which I unscientifically use as a general classification that includes arachnids and insects) that move among us is simply one small part of my larger effort to learn more about the nature of Anchorage and the neighboring Chugach Front Range. And it seems a more worthwhile—and yes, fun—way to spend my time than getting bleary-eyed in front of assorted screens, though I admittedly still do too much of the latter.

Eventually I would find four “snow spiders” on November 30, all within a 15-minute span shortly before sunset. Thanks to them, my streak of documenting active local bugs outdoors now numbers 118 consecutive months, stretching back to February 2012. That’s a rather remarkable figure, considering it includes the depths of nine winters (November through January present the greatest challenge). Of course those depths aren’t as nearly as deep as they once were, as Anchorage and the rest of Alaska continue to warm substantially.

It seems amazing to me that such tiny, ectothermic, invertebrate creatures are actively moving about even during our coldest, darkest, harshest season, sometimes when temperatures have fallen well below freezing. When it gets really cold—in the mid-twenties or below—snow spiders are my go-to “bugs.” I’ve found them roaming the local landscape at temperatures as low as the mid-teens, though that’s a rarity.

Through online research I’ve learned that spiders and some insects have a variety of ways to survive winter’s cold. In places that experience extreme cold, for instance Alaska’s Interior, they can utilize mechanisms known as “freeze tolerance” and “supercooling.”

While such techniques help them survive winter in a frozen state, it turns out that in more moderate winter climates, like those in the Anchorage area, spiders and insects may use a process called “cold hardening” to make it through winter in a dormant but not frozen condition. As temperatures drop toward freezing, their bodies start to produce natural anti-freeze compounds, which lower the temperature at which they will freeze.

When temperatures drop below freezing but aren’t too awfully cold, spiders (or insects) are still able to function, to move about the landscape, albeit ever more slowly,

What surprises me about my latest snow spider encounters is that Anchorage has experienced a long stretch of frigid weather that by local contemporary standards qualifies as extreme or at least unusual cold, with daily lows dropping below zero on several occasions.

Somehow these spiders survived that cold in a quiescent state and then, when temperatures rose into the mid-twenties—still well below freezing—they transitioned out of their dormancy and into a more active mode. That’s remarkable. And something of a mystery.

This is part of what keeps me looking for winter bugs: the mystery and seeming magic of their appearance in such harsh conditions. There’s also the excitement and delight I feel—I’m not sure what else to call it—when I see a snow spider or midge or snow flea in sub-freezing weather.

I’ll also admit to an admiration and affection for the tiny creatures that remain active in such conditions. At some level a kind of connection is made as our worlds intersect. I can’t say how a spider or insect experiences my presence—and sometimes my intrusion into its life—in deepest winter. But there’s no question they bring both joy and a sense of wonder into mine. And isn’t that a good thing?

Oh, one more thing. Or rather two things. First, Jan has not only accepted my quirky search for winter spiders and insects, she’s joined the hunt; and on Nov. 30 she too found a snow spider—while skiing no less. Second, on Dec. 1, both Jan and I separately found insects (barely) moving atop the snow, with the temperature hovering near 20 degrees. So that guarantees the streak remains alive through 2021. Stay tuned for 2022. I think it’s going to be a very good year.

Anchorage nature writer and wildlands/wildlife advocate Bill Sherwonit is a widely published essayist and the author of more than a dozen books, including “Living with Wildness: An Alaskan Odyssey” and “Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska’s Wildlife.” Readers wishing to send comments or questions directly to Bill may do so at akgriz@hotmail.com

Load comments