If you look closely at the forest floors in central and northern California, you may notice what look like little tubes rising up from the leaf litter or the bark of a fallen log. You'll have to look carefully because the tubes are only about an inch high. With a soft-looking white lining, and an exterior of moss, mud or leaves that match the surroundings, those tubes are the comfy castles of the California turret spider.
The sun sets behind the trees at Briones Regional Park in California. Soon the turret spiders will rise up from their burrows and ascent to the mouth of their turrets to hunt prey. (Photo: Josh Cassidy/KQED)
A relative of trapdoor spiders and tarantulas, this species is so named because of the structures they build and skulk in, waiting for prey to pass by. They use the vibrations made near their turret walls to figure out in which direction to come out and pounce, dragging their prey into the turret, which can extend up to six inches underground.
While males venture away from their turrets to find mates, females don't leave their well-crafted homes. They might live in the same structure for as long as 16 years!
An article in Bay Nature Magazine describes these creatures in elegant detail:
Turret spiders are part of an ancient lineage of arachnids called mygalomorphs, which swing their fangs down like pickaxes rather than pinching them in from the sides like most modern spiders. Tarantulas and trapdoor spiders are also part of this group, and California turns out to be one of the world's epicenters for mygalomorph diversity. It takes a trained eye to spot turret spiders because they're only three quarters of an inch long and they hide in the ground. But once you learn to spot their burrows you might notice they are astonishingly abundant.
"To me, the turrets look just like the rook in a chess set," Trent Pearce, a naturalist for the East Bay Regional Park District, tells KQED's Deep Look. "The spiders themselves are super-burly — like a tiny tarantula the size of your pinky nail."
Watching a turret spider in action is something that startles and delights naturalists and researchers alike. Anyone who has a thing for horror movies will enjoy seeing the spider's lightning fast attack. This video from KQED Deep Look gives a whole new perspective to the danger facing any small insect moving about across a seemingly empty forest floor.
These incredible arachnids are found only in California. Next time you stroll through a Bay Area park, keep an eye out for a little structure standing out amongst the leaf litter. Then look very closely and see if there are eight tiny legs perched near the entrance waiting to pounce...