Spider of the Month - DecemberBolyphantes luteolus

We're back in the great outdoors again for this month's species, Bolyphantes luteolus, which is a member of the family Linyphiidae.
The larger members of this family build quite conspicuous horizontal sheet webs up in the vegetation on bushes etc., while small species hide away under stones, in leaf litter, moss and similar micro-habitats.
With a size range of about 3-4mm, B. luteolus is of moderate size and can be found in both of these situations. Its overall form, as clearly shown in this illustration, is that of a web-spinner, with long, flexible legs which are well equipped with sensory hairs, bristles and spines The legs are rather spindly in comparison with the sturdy legs of the fast-running ground hunters; you can see the contrast with the cursorial wolf-spiders which have featured in earlier months (Pardosa pullata in June, Trochosa terricola in April).

There is another species of Bolyphantes in this part of the world: B. alticeps.
These two species are similar in size, similar in appearance and similar in the various habitats that they occupy. Although B. luteolus is widespread throughout Britain, B. alticeps is restricted to the more northern regions of England and Wales as well as Scotland. So - in our area we stand a chance of finding both species and need to differentiate between them.

This problem is rather reminiscent of the two species that we looked at in October: Gonatium rubellum and G. rubens. Those two species were easily distinguished - the males by the shape of their carapace and tibia of leg I and both species by their genitalia.

Once again, we can look at the heads of the males to distinguish the species, Bolyphantes male headswith B. alticeps  having a more pointed, elevated front bearing the eyes, as shown here.
We'll come back to strangely shaped heads next month as a New Year treat with one of my favourite species

Bolyphantes male palpsThe males are also fairly easy to recognise on examination of their palps; in particular there is a large spine on the patella (the 'knee' of the palp) which on close examination differs greatly - in the words of Roberts: "In B. luteolus the tip of the spine appears like the jagged edge of a broken broomstick, whereas in B. alticeps the distal third of the spine is tapered and serrated". This can be seen in the picture here, but is much clearer in the figure in Roberts (1985), where the other distinguishing features are also emphasised.

Bolyphantes epigynesIn contrast, however, the females are not so easy to separate. Their overall appearance is similar and the epigynes in both species show much variation in structure, but are still similar as shown here. Indeed, careful measuring may be needed to ascertain the species to which a female specimen belongs.

There are other species like this, with dimorphic males but indistinguishable females; for example in the genus Oedothorax there are a number of such species pairs such as Oe. gibbosus and tuberosus.

Perhaps these species-pairs may be sibling species, recently separated in evolutionary terms.

There may be habitat preferences separating these paired species. Over a wide range of pitfall trapping sites, I have taken B.  luteolus in oak woodland and several peatbog locations, often wooded or with fairly tall vegetation, whereas B. alticeps only appeared at one of these sites - an upland, exposed peatbog with no trees and a mossy carpet beneath short heather vegetation.  This pattern of distribution was observed in December - so these two species are our "spiders of the month".

The picture of B. luteolus is from  Dr. Mike Roberts' book : The Spiders of Great Britain and Ireland, published by Harley Books in 1985, from which the other illustrations have been highly adapted. You'll need to look in the book to see the details clearly!

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