Misumena vatia and Dr. Olmsted

While in New Glarus waiting for the Sun to go down and the meteors to come out, I went for a ramble in the restored prairie at New Glarus Woods State Park. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a bee, not moving the way bees normally do. In fact it wasn’t moving at all – just hanging lifeless from a flower-head. I had a guess at the reason, and it was correct. Partly hidden under the petals was a goldenrod crab-spider, Misumena vatia, camouflaged in yellow and black, calmly making a meal out of a bee twice its size:

Crab spider (Misumena vatia), New Glarus  Woods

When lurking in different-coloured flowers they can shift colours; here’s another one I spotted at the UW Arboretum a few years ago:

Spider in thistle, Curtis Prairie

In what’s becoming my standard practice, as well as looking it up on EOL and Wikipedia, I also looked into what the Biodiversity Heritage Library had on Misumena vatia. From 1856 comes this description of more or less the same experience I had, in a section called “Nature Sketches of Temperate America” in Denison Olmsted’s On the recent secular period of the Aurora Borealis, under the rubric “The Evening Primrose Spider Trap”:

When examining more closely into the cause of this insect carnage, I have been utterly taken by surprise on lifting one of these insects to find it in the grasp of an almost invisible, yellowish white spider… [s]he has elongated front legs, and a peculiar inclination to walk sideways or backwards with equal facility, and through this resemblance to a crab’s gait she is sometimes called the crab-spider, Misumena vatia… I have witnessed this spider change color occasionally from white to yellow.

Now who, I wondered, was Denison Olmsted? The first line of his Wikipedia entry brought me full circle, to the reason I had made the trip in the first place:

Denison Olmsted (June 18, 1791 – May 13, 1859), U.S. physicist and astronomer, was born at East Hartford, Connecticut. Professor Olmsted is credited with giving birth to meteor science after the 1833 Leonid meteor shower over North America spurred him to study this phenomenon.

And in fact Olmsted used observations of the 1833 shower – where thousands of meteors per hour were observed – to argue that meteor showers originated outside the atmosphere, most likely in clumps of particles in space. And not just his own observations; he brought together detailed accounts, mostly in newspapers, from all over North America. It was nineteenth-century
citizen science, really; Olmsted’s own Meteor Zoo.

He seems to have been a good egg all round: “He and Professor Silliman gave lectures at night to mechanics and others who could not study during the day. He delivered public lectures and contributed articles to the press on scientific concerns… he made numerous mechanical inventions, very few of which were secured by patent.”

The 1833 Leonid shower was also the inspiration for the song “Stars Fell on Alabama”, which remains a jazz standard, and even briefly provided a motto for Alabama license plates. Here’s a couple of different renditions to round out the post: a more trad one by Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, and a bebop treatment by Cannonball Adderley.


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One response to “Misumena vatia and Dr. Olmsted

  1. Pingback: The Gate of the Silver Key | Walking with Henslow

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