Spider Types and Identification Guide
This spider identification guide will help you identify the spider you have found. It includes the two kinds of spiders in North America that are potentially dangerous to humans, the widow spiders and the recluse spiders. In addition, this guide will help you identify other species commonly found in basements, garages, and gardens.
Often the first thing people do when they find a spider is to start looking for a way to kill it. That's too bad -- spiders catch and eat all kinds of pest insects, especially mosquitoes, flies, and roaches. Your house is better off with a few spiders around, and in any case you'll never kill all of them. If you did somehow wipe out all the spiders in your house, you would soon notice swarms of houseflies, fruit flies, mosquitoes, gnats, clothes moths, and assorted other pests flying around your house.
What's in This Guide
Learning about spiders is a fascinating pursuit. For every group of spiders included here, this guide will answer several questions:
What is the spider's scientific name? Also known as "taxonomy," or an organism's scientific name is a way for scientists and students to organize life on earth to reflect how they are descended from common ancestors.
Is the spider dangerous? A few spiders possess venom that can be dangerous for humans.
Where does it live? Animals typically have a more or less restricted range in which they occur, and spiders are no exception.
What is the spider's habitat? Spiders live in a wide variety of places, including in trees, on flowers, or in caves. Some, of course, can be found in your basement.
What interesting habits does it have? Spiders have many different strategies for catching prey and staying alive.
Are All Spiders Dangerous to Humans?
The answer, of course, is NO. It's true that there a few species of spider that can be dangerous, and they are discussed in this guide. But the vast majority of spiders that you find are helpful partners in human existence. Even though they may look scary, or exhibit habits that seems creepy and sinister, they are in fact among the most important players in the entire animal kingdom. Beyond that, any student who focuses on spiders will find an unbelievable range of disguises, technical abilities, and other eccentricities in the spider world. The study of spiders -- Arachnology -- is one of the richest fields for citizen scientists and professional researchers alike.
Potentially Dangerous Spiders
The two kinds of spiders discussed below -- the widow spiders and the recluse spiders -- are the only North American arachnids that pose any kind of threat to humans. It's worth knowing how to identify them, and what to do it you should be bitten by one of the spiders in this group.
Black Widow and Related Spiders
The common black widow spider, Latrodectus mactans, is found throughout much of North America. There are related species in the Southwest and into Central America, including Latrodectus tredecimguttatus, the beautiful Mediterranean black widow. They are all potentially dangerous to humans, but the severity of the bite varies. In severe cases, muscle pain and cramping can persist for days, and occasionally can result in death, although with the advent of anti-venom there have been very few recent fatalities.
This spider spins tangled, disorganized webs in dark corners of basements, garages, and wall spaces. Black widow webs can also be found in rotten stumps and caves -- any place sheltered and dark seems to fit the bill. In your house, these spiders keep to themselves and are quite shy, though it does happen that people get bitten by putting their hand in the wrong place without looking.
Black Widow Facts
What is the spider's scientific name? Widow spiders are members of the genus Latrodectus. There are several species in North America.
Is the spider dangerous? Yes. This is one of the few spiders that possess venom that can be dangerous for humans.
Where does it live? The most common species, which is black with a red hourglass, occurs throughout the eastern US. Others occur mostly in the eastern US.
What is the spider's habitat? Black widows spin webs in corners, stump holes, and cave entrances. Some, of course, can be found in your basement.
What interesting habits does it have? Black widows get their name from the female's habit of eating the smaller male after mating.
What To Do If You Find a Black Widow
If you find a large, shiny black spider with long legs, look closely at the underside if you can. L. mactans almost always has a clear red mark underneath the abdomen, usually in the general shape of an hourglass. This mark can vary, though, and just because there's no mark doesn't mean it's not a spider to be concerned about.
Don't worry about trying to capture the spider -- that's when most people get bitten. Simply take a picture of the spider and contact a doctor or emergency room technician. They can help you identify your spider.
Recluse Spider Identification
Recluse spiders get their name from their habit of hiding in dark corners and under neglected objects during the day. If you have a cluttered garage, it's possible that there are recluse spiders there (along with plenty of other varieties of arachnid). Recluse spiders occasionally causes serious bites.
The bite of the brown recluse is not immediately painful, but it sometimes progresses to a skin-eating-type pathology that can cause extensive scarring, and even death, though this outcome is very rare. Some cases may be caused by a "flesh-eating" staph infection that is secondary to the venom. Regardless of the cause, a runaway reaction to brown recluse venom can leave its victim in very bad shape.
Brown recluse spiders come out at night to hunt small arthropods like cockroaches and centipedes, and that's when humans can inadvertently come in contact with them. If you suspect you've been bitten by this spider, call 911 immediately or get yourself to the ER. Time is important when dealing with a brown recluse bite!
Comparison of Wolf Spider and Brown Recluse from Maryland DNR
Brown Recluse Facts
What is the spider's scientific name? Recluse spiders are in the genus Loxosceles. There are several species, but the most common species, L. reclusa, occurs mostly in the American South.
Is the spider dangerous? Loxosceles species have a cell-destroying venom that can result in very serious lesions in humans. A brown recluse bite can turn into a medical emergency.
Where does it live? L. reclusa is common in the American South, and can be found as far north as New York.
What is the spider's habitat? Recluse spiders hide in dark, quiet places during the day, coming out in the night to hunt for small insects. They do not spin a prey-trapping web.
What interesting habits does it have? Brown recluse spiders are night prowlers, which is how they occasionally come into contact with humans.
Map Showing Range of Recluse Spider Species in the US
Orb-Weaver Spider Identification
Orb-weavers are the brilliant architects of the spider world. When you happen to notice a beautiful web decorated with shining dew drops, you are looking at the unbelievable work of an orb weaver spider. Spider silk is strong, but perhaps the best way to think of it is in terms of toughness. While silk is technically stronger than steel but not as strong as Kevlar, it is on fact tougher than both. Spider silk's combination of strength and flexibility makes it one of the world's miracles of composition.
And the orb-web weavers take this material and make the most beautiful art with it -- art that is first and foremost designed to be functional. When a prey insect, say a small grasshopper, falls into the web, it is quickly tangled up and attacked by the spider. The web design is specially construction to catch up insects the spider can manage, and let the little ones it doesn't care about slip through.
These amazing spiders often have bizarre shapes. They're found nearly everywhere in the world.
Orb-Weaver Spider Facts
What is the spider's scientific name? Orb-weavers belong to the family Araneidae. There are many kinds of orb-weavers; they share the common trait of weaving intricate webs.
Is the spider dangerous? No. Despite their often bizarre appearance, orb-weavers are harmless.
Where does it live? Orb-weavers are found throughout the world.
What is the spider's habitat? These spiders spin webs across flight routes of insects, which generally means between trees and branches.
What interesting habits does it have? Orb weavers often spin webs around electric lights. They have learned to intercept the insects that come to the lights.
Garden Spider Identification
Garden spiders are a kind of orb-web spider that can be very common. They are among the largest and most beautiful of North American arachnids. Garden spiders are often found in late summer, when you will see them waiting, head-down, in the middle of their webs. These spiders spin tough, wide webs among weeds and overgrown areas, and they feed on crickets, grasshoppers, bees, and other insects. It's thought that one reason garden spiders sit in the middle of their web is to keep birds, who have sharper eyes than insects, from flying through the web and destroying it.
Garden Spider Facts
What is the spider's scientific name? Like all orb-weavers, garden spiders belong to the family Araneidae. There are many kinds, most of them large and brightly colored.
Is the spider dangerous? No. Despite their size, garden spiders seldom bite people and their bite is much less severe than a bee sting.
Where does it live? This family is found throughout the world.
What is the spider's habitat? These spiders spin webs across flight routes of insects, usually low to the ground.
What interesting habits does it have? Garden spiders spin an "X" or other shape in the middle of their web, where they rest.
Wolf spiders are fierce hunters -- despite their name, they are typically solitary -- and take full advantage of their eight eyes to scope out their surroundings for any moving thing that could be dinner. They have fast-acting venom and a limitless appetite. One cool thing about wolf spiders is their habit of carrying their egg sacs attached to their rear end. When the little spiderlings hatch out, they all clamber up to rest on their mother's abdomen.
Positive identification of wolf spiders is made by examining the eyes -- wolf spiders' eyes are especially large, unlike grass spiders and other similar arachnids. It's also good to know that wolf spiders will bite if you mess with them enough, but their venom is fairly mild, causing pain similar to a bee sting.
Wolf Spider Facts
What is the spider's scientific name? Wolf spiders belong to the family Lycosidae.
Is the spider dangerous? No -- wolf spider venom is not harmful to human. A wolf spider's bite is less painful than a bee sting.
Where does it live? Wolf spiders are found throughout North America.
What is the spider's habitat? Wolf spiders are solitary hunters and can be found in almost any outdoor habitat.
What interesting habits does it have? Female wolf spiders carry their egg sacs around with their spinnerets -- silk producing glands at the tip of the abdomen that all spiders have -- until the spiderlings hatch.
The next time you're out in a nature preserve or park, have a close look at the flowers around you. Not the carefully planted tulips and crocuses -- focus on the wildflowers, especially the ones being attended by bees and butterflies. Look very closely, and there's a good chance you'll see one of the many species of crab spiders waiting for its prey.
Crab spiders do not spin webs -- instead they sit motionless in a flower, camouflaged to the point of invisibility, and wait for a butterfly, bee, or fly to come looking for a nectar meal. When the prey insect is close enough, the crab spider strikes. With its strong, curved front legs (the source of its common name), the spider seizes its unfortunate victim, bites it with paralyzing venom, and drains it of its bodily fluids. The crumpled husk of the victim is all that's left -- the crab spider drops it to the ground and withdraws into the flower to wait for another meal.
Crab spiders are often very beautiful, and are almost always well-camouflaged on their perch. They can overpower and consume stinging insects like bees and wasps, as well as large, strong butterflies.
Crab Spider Facts
What is the spider's scientific name? These spiders are in the family Thomisidae, and there are many kinds of spiders in this family; flower crab spiders are only one kind.
Is the spider dangerous? No -- these spiders are shy and are nothing to be afraid of.
Where does it live? Crab spiders can be found all over North America.
What is the spider's habitat? Flower crab spiders live, as you might guess, on flowers.
What interesting habits does it have? These spiders are beautiful, and beautifully camouflaged on flowers. They will attack, catch, and kill all kinds of other insects, including bees.
Grass Spider Identification
As their name suggests, grass spiders live in grassy areas, including lawns and parkways. They are quite common, and chances are good that the spider you are trying to identify will turn out to be one of the many species of grass spiders in the world.
Grass spiders spin low webs in the grass, and rush out of hiding areas to grab their prey. They possess a kind of venom called "agatoxins," which paralyzes small insects but is not effective in humans, though large species will bite defensively. These arachnids control many common pests that would otherwise multiply out of control, so have a heart and let those grass spiders live!
Grass Spider Facts
What is the spider's scientific name? American grass spiders are in the genus Agelenopsis.
Is the spider dangerous? No, although they can deliver a mild bite if you happen to lie down on one.
Where does it live? Grass spiders occur throughout North America. There are very similar species in Europe.
What is the spider's habitat? These spiders live on the ground, in grassy habitats.
What interesting habits does it have? Grass spiders spin a distinctive flat web with a funnel on one end.
Jumping Spider Identification
Jumping spiders are among the most interesting of the critters in and around your home. They're quick, tough as nails, and some are pretty darn cute. They don't usually spin webs -- instead, they roam around, looking for prey to attack. When it finds prey, a jumping spider will suddenly leap several times its body length to grab and bite its victim. The power of the jumping spider's leg muscles must be amazing, right? Wrong. Spiders don't even have any leg muscles to speak of. It took scientists a long time to figure it out, but here's how they do it:
When a jumping spider decides to jump, it creates a sudden change in its blood pressure (actually haemolymph pressure, but it's basically the same thing). It uses strong muscles in its upper body to suddenly force much of its blood into its legs, which cause them to extend explosively. When all eight legs suddenly snap out straight, the spider shoots into the air.
When you see one of these little spiders on a porch railing or a windowsill, they will quickly notice you too. They have huge eyes to notice any movement around them. They'll quickly swivel their body around to confront you, and often rear back on their hind legs to appear threatening.
Jumping Spiders Are Photogenic!
Jumping Spider Facts
What is the spider's scientific name? Jumping spiders are in the family Salticidae. There are many kinds of jumping spiders.
Is the spider dangerous? No. Jumping spiders are not dangerous to humans, and will always seek to escape by jumping -- which they are exceptionally good at.
Where does it live? Jumping spiders occur throughout the world.
What is the spider's habitat? Jumping spiders can be found just about anywhere, from the desert to your back porch.
What interesting habits does it have? Jumping spiders have eyes like wide-angle motion detectors which sense motions from the side and behind. Jumping spiders have a nearly 360-degree view of the world.
Funnel Web Spiders
Funnel Web Spider Identification
There are many, many kinds of funnel web spiders, but a few varieties found in Australia get all the attention. The Sydney funnel web spider and its kin are among the world's most venomous animals, and a bit from one of them send the victim into nightmarish seizures, often leading to death.
However, the funnel-web spiders you are likely to encounter are completely harmless, and eat so many flies, centipedes, and other crawling things that you really should give them a medal, not squash them with a handful of kleenex. They make cool webs that have a characteristic funnel shape in the middle where the spider hides, rushing out to grab any insect that happens to fell into its sticky, spreading net.
That said, the Sydney Funnel Web is one of the deadliest animals on earth. What's it like to get bit by one? Read this terrifying story.
Funnel Web Spider Facts
What is the spider's scientific name? These spiders are in the family Atracidae
Is the spider dangerous? Yes. Funnel web spiders produce a venom that can have a devastating effect on humans.
Where does it live? Funnel webs live all over the world, but the dangerous species are confined to Australia.
What is the spider's habitat? These spiders live in places where they can dig burrows, which they use to ambush prey. The males occasionally roam in search of mates, and this is when they come into contact with humans.
What interesting habits does it have? Funnel webs have huge fangs, and are quick to attack and bite.
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Lynx Spider Identification
These beautiful spiders are generally not common, so it you find one consider yourself lucky. They're excellent hunters and seldom spin webs. Lynx spiders spend their days on plants, camouflaged among the greenery, waiting for small insects and other arthropods to ambush. Some are brilliant emerald green; others are shades of brown with finely striated markings that further their camouflage.
The spiny legs that serve as a good identifying characteristic are used as a kind of a basket to catch flying insects. Lynx spiders have excellent vision, with six of their eight eyes arranged in a hexagon -- another good identifying characteristic.
Lynx Spider Facts
What is the spider's scientific name? Lynx spiders are in the family Oxyopidae.
Is the spider dangerous? No -- lynx spiders are harmless to humans.
Where does it live? Lynx spiders can be found all over North America
What is the spider's habitat? Lynx spiders do not typically spin webs -- they prowl for prey on flowers and foliage.
What interesting habits does it have? Lynx spiders are one of very few spider species that have exhibited social behavior.
House Spider Identification
Common House Spider
This cobweb spider is one of the most common arachnids in temperate regions. You almost certainly have them in your house! The coloring is variable but the size, shape, and characteristics of the web will help you know one when you see one. Some of the darker individuals could be taken for the more dangerous black widow spider, but only the black widow has the combination of shiny black body with bright red markings.
House Spider Facts
What is the spider's scientific name? There are many kinds of spiders that are sometimes called "house spiders," but one of the most common in the U.S. is the American house spider, Parasteatoda tepidariorum, a kind of cobweb spider.
Is the spider dangerous? No. The bite is of no consequence.
Where does it live? This spider lives throughout North America
What is the spider's habitat? These are the spiders that you find in window casements and basements.
What interesting habits does it have? House spiders catch and kill many kinds of pest species.
These amazing arachnids have evolved the ability to prey on fish, which they wait for on the surface of the water until the fish is close enough -- and then they pounce!
Daddy Long-Legs Spiders
Daddy Long-Legs or Cellar Spider
There's always been some confusion about the common name of these spiders -- "daddy long-legs" in the US usually refers to arachnids properly called Harvestmen, while practically everywhere else the name refers to these long-legged spiders. You will most often see them in basement corners, motionless in tangled webs, waiting for prey, Leave them be! They gobble up tons of mosquitoes, flies, and other airborne pests.
What's in a Web?
Spiders typically make webs in out-of-the-way places, and they are marvels of design. They are constructed from silk that is mainly protein, but have several other compounds, including sugars, lipids, ions, and pigments.
The actual process of spinning a web, whether beautifully ordered like an orb-weaver's or tangled like a widow spider's, is accomplished with the use of glands at the tip of the spider's abdomen. These hands are often called "spinnerets," and they are essentially liquid dispensers -- the silk hardens as it hits the air, and so the spider need to constantly "pay out" the hardening silk in a fine thread. It does this with a rising and falling motion of its body, and also with the help of its hind pair of legs (every spider has eight legs).
As if that weren't cool enough, spiders often have different kind of silk glands and different kinds of silk they can produce. For example, some silk is strong and smooth, and is used to attach the web to a tree or railing or other surface. Other silk from the same spider might be sticky and capable of tangling up prey. The two types of silk are necessary for the two kinds of uses. Amazing!
The following resources were consulted for this guide: