Alpine wolf spider on the mountain tops. Photo: Ed McMackin

Alpine wolf spider on the mountain tops. Photo: Ed McMackin

Out There: Mountain-Top Wolf Spiders

“Wolves are not only found in our Kootenay Lake mountains, but they are found in the spider world.”

“Out There” is a column by Ed McMackin

Wolves are not only found in our Kootenay Lake mountains, but they are found in the spider world. Free-roaming wolves and free-roaming wolf spiders both pursue and stalk their prey, hunting on the run, preying, respectively, on small and large mammals and on flies, small insects and their kin. Although I have never observed an alpine wolf spider at night under a full moon, I would be inclined to say that, unlike Akokli Mountain wolves, alpine wolf spiders do not howl.

The “alpine wolf spider” (Melocosa fumosa), which I have encountered a number of times on tops of Selkirk and Purcell Mountains, is dark in colour — charcoal or black — and can be, counting leg-span, as large as 1.25 inches (32 mm), slightly larger than a toonie.

It blends in well, in its environment of dark, lichen-covered rocks and plant debris. It is one of the larger of my spider encounters in the Selkirk-Purcell spider-world. (This one was identified through Efauna, BC).

The alpine wolf spider inhabits the same territory as very small alpine plants which often don’t cover the ground surface as much as does small loose rock. The wolf spider seeks refuge and shelter in crannies under the scree, and may occupy miniature burrows and excavations, made by other small creatures, during winter and unfavourable temperatures and inclement weather. Mountain tops don’t often provide much anti-freezing protection in winter, as the snow often gets blown over the top or over a ridge to form a cornice on the lee side of the mountain.

Like other spider species, Melocosa fumosa usually have eight legs but I have seen photographs of them with only six legs. The front two or others may have gone “missing in action.”

Some venturing Northern Water Pipet, which feeds on insects, may have missed and got only a leg for its efforts. Eight legs for a spider may be ample but they probably have as many eyes as legs. I saw two eyes on top of the “head” and I think I saw one eye on each side and four in front. (Spiders, unlike insects, have only two body segments – head thorax and abdomen. Daddy-longlegs, with one body segment, is not considered a true spider, at least the last I heard).

This wolf spider (Melocosa fumosa), identified as a female, is one of several species of wolf spiders, generally found at lower elevations. The alpine wolf spider inhabits a high alpine where the ground cover is made up of only low plants, mostly smaller than 5 cm, scattered boulders, matted arctic willow and scree, not much different from the High Arctic. The sloped or level landscape is mostly a mosaic of patches of rocky material and colonies of different plant species, flowering and non-flowering.

This is where I have run across this one and other alpine wolf spiders. Like many high- country critters, the alpine wolf spider depends on the sun for warmth to be active in getting food. My spider, the one that came along and “sat down” beside me couldn’t really say, “Oh, what a beautiful day”, as the temperature was hovering around 17 C.

The sky was somewhat cloudy but there was just enough heat from the sun to make the rocks warmer than the air, so while I was waiting for a little more light to photograph some flowers, the spider came running over the warm, flat rocks, stopping occasionally to take in its surroundings and the black eye on the camera. It seemed there was no slowing down or speeding up, it was just dead stop and dead run.

Then, when I happened to move my hand overhead, it ran again and disappeared to safety, under a rock. (For more pictures of this spider, log into E-Fauna BC, and on the main page, type in the species name, Melocosa fumosa).