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Wolf Spider WOLF SPIDERS
Critter Files/Spiders/Wolf Spiders
By Blake Newton
University of Kentucky Department of Entomology
   
 
TAXONOMY

KINGDOM: Animalia | PHYLUM: Arthropoda | CLASS: Arachnida | ORDER: Araneae | FAMILY: Lycosidae (wolf spiders)

 
Other Names: Lycosids
 

WHAT IS A WOLF SPIDER?
LIFE CYCLE
ECOLOGY
PEST STATUS
COMMON KENTUCKY WOLF SPIDERS
COLLECTING & PHOTOGRAPHY
WOLF SPIDER FACTS
MYTHS, LEGENDS, AND FOLKLORE

 
WHAT IS A WOLF SPIDER?

Wolf Spiders are large, hairy spiders which are usually patterned with a mixture of black, gray, and brown.  Wolf spiders, especially large ones, look very similar to spiders in the Pisauridae family (nursery web and fishing spiders), but wolf spiders are usually more robust, with shorter legs.  Wolf spiders have 8 eyes.  As with all spiders, wolf spiders have 8 legs, 2 body parts (cephalothorax and abdomen), and fang-like mouthparts called "chelicerae."

Typical Wolf Spider
Typical Wolf Spider (R. Bessin, 2002)
SIZE: Body length up to about 1"
 
LIFE CYCLE

Simple metamorphosis: like all spiders, young wolf spiders hatch from eggs and look like tiny adults when they are born.  A wolf spider sheds its skin several times as it grows to an adult.  Most wolf spiders live for several years.  In many species, female wolf spiders lay dozens of eggs at a time and wrap them in a large ball of silk.  The female will then carry the egg sac on her abdomen until the spiderlings hatch.  Upon hatching, the spiderlings will live on the mother's back for a few weeks until they are large enough to hunt on their own.  Thanks to Greg Abernathy of Lexington, Kentucky, who sent us the picture below.

 
A female wolf spider in the Rabidosa genus carrying young spiderlings
A female wolf spider in the Rabidosa genus
carrying young spiderlings (G. Abernathy, 2003)
 
ECOLOGY

Wolf spiders are active hunters that patrol the ground for insects, small spiders, and similar prey.  They do not use webs to capture prey.  Wolf spiders are perhaps the most common Kentucky spiders and are found in all corners of the state and in virtually every habitat.  They live by the thousands in leaf litter and grassy areas.  Some wolf spiders build small burrows and defend a territory, others are free-roaming.  Because they are so numerous, and such voracious predators, wolf spiders are a very important part of any ecosystem in which they occur.  Pictured below is a wolf spider in the Hogna genus feeding on a cockroach (thanks to Michael Richichi for sending us this image).

 
Wolf Spider in the Hogna genus feeding on a cockroach
Wolf Spider in the Hogna genus feeding on a cockroach (M. Richichi, 2008)
 
PEST STATUS

In most cases, wolf spiders benefit humans by feeding on all sorts of insects, including crop pests.  Wolf spiders are rarely pests, but they sometimes wander into houses, where their large size often frightens homeowners.  Wolf spiders can bite, but their bites are extremely rare and no more dangerous or painful than bee stings.  In fact, bees and wasps are more dangerous than wolf spiders because a wolf spider will never "attack" a person, unlike bees or wasps that will attack to defend a hive.  Wolf spiders will only bite if they are handled.  Wolf spiders that are found indoors have wandered in by mistake and should be collected and released outdoors (if you ever need to collect a wolf spider, "herd" the spider into a container with a stick or a pencil).

CONFUSION: Wolf Spider vs. Brown Recluse
Because wolf spiders are sometimes seen indoors and because they are usually brown in color, they are often mistaken for brown recluse spiders.  If you see a fast-moving, dark-colored spider running on the floor, it is more likely to be a wolf spider than a brown recluse.  Brown recluses are very secretive and are almost never seen out in the open.  With a little practice, it is easy to tell the difference between wolf spiders and brown recluses.  Take a look at the Case File for Brown Recluses, and our Brown Recluse ENTfact to learn how to identify brown recluse spiders.

 
COMMON KENTUCKY WOLF SPIDERS
There are many wolf spider species in Kentucky, but most of them look very similar and are difficult to identify to species, even for experts.  Shown below are some common examples.

Hogna spp.
GENUS: Hogna
Pictured below are wolf spiders in the Hogna genus.  This genus contains some of the largest wolf spiders in Kentucky, with body lengths of about 1".  (Note that many Kentucky wolf spiders currently in the genus Hogna were once part of the genus Lycosa, but this was changed in recent years).

Wolf Spider in the Hogna genus
Wolf Spider in the Hogna genus (B. Newton, 2002)
Wolf Spider in the Hogna genus
Wolf Spider in the Hogna genus (B. Newton, 2005)

Rabid Wolf Spider
GENUS and SPECIES: Rabidosa rabida
The Rabid Wolf Spider, Rabidosa rabida, is a typical member of the wolf spider genus Rabidosa.  Wolf spiders in this genus are very common in Kentucky and grow to about 1" in length.  They are characterized by bold brown and white stripes on the cephalothorax.  The picture of the female wolf spider carrying spiderlings (shown above) is also in the genus Rabidosa.

The Rabid Wolf Spider, Rabidosa rabida
The Rabid Wolf Spider, Rabidosa rabida (B. Newton, 2005)

Schizocosa spp.
GENUS: Schizocosa
Members of the genus Schizocosa are among the smallest wolf spiders in Kentucky, with a body length that rarely exceeds 1/4".  They are also some of the most common wolf spiders, especially in meadows and leaf litter where they prey on springtails and other small insects.  The one pictured below is carrying an egg sac, a behavior exhibited by most female wolf spiders.

A female wolf spider in the Schizocosa genus with an egg sac
A female wolf spider in the Schizocosa
genus with an egg sac (B. Newton, 2004)
 
COLLECTING & PHOTOGRAPHY

Wolf spiders are almost always be found close to the ground.  Look for them under rocks and logs, near streams, in leaf litter, on the forest floor, at the bases of cultivated plants, and just about anyplace else (they are extremely common).  They are often the same color as their background, so they can be very hard to see.  Wolf spiders are very fast, so you have to be fast too if you want to catch one (or its picture - use a fast film speed and bright light to get a good picture of a wolf spider).

Wolf spiders can deliver a painful bite, so they should never be picked up by hand.  Instead, if you ever need to collect a wolf spider, "herd" the spider into a container with a stick or a pencil.  Like all spiders, wolf spiders should be preserved in ethyl alcohol.

Captive Wolf Spiders: large wolf spiders will do well in captivity when properly cared for.  For tips, visit our page:
Pet Bugs - Wolf Spiders.

 
WOLF SPIDER FACTS

Wolf spiders are very difficult to identify to genus and species.  Click below to visit the American Museum of Natural History's online pictorial key to genus identification within the wolf spider family:
http://research.amnh.org/entomology/blackrock2/families/lycosidae.htm  

Wolf spiders are very closely related to Nursery-Web and Fishing Spiders.

 
MYTHS - LEGENDS - FOLKLORE

Wolf spiders probably got their name from the way that they catch their prey.  Instead of catching prey in a web, wolf spiders stalk and chase their prey like a wolf.  In addition, the root word "lycos" in "Lycosidae" (the scientific family name for wolf spiders) is Greek for "wolf."  The name has been around for a long time: the ancient Greek writer and philosopher Aristotle mentioned the "wolf spider" in his History of Animals, written in 350 BC.

Although wolf spiders resemble tarantulas, they are not closely related.  Despite this, at least one species of wolf spider, Hogna tarantula (a.k.a. Lycosa tarantula), a large wolf spider that lives in Italy, is referred to as the "Tarantula Spider."  Long ago, these wolf spiders were blamed for causing a disease called "tarantism," the treatment of which involved a special dance called the "tarantella."  As it turns out, the bite of this spider is no more dangerous than a bite from any other wolf spider.  You can read more about the Italian "tarantula" wolf spider at this page from Wikipedia:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lycosa_tarentula

Do you know any other myths, legends, or folklore about wolf spiders?  If so, let us know.

 

Original document: 25 May 2004
Last updated: 30 Jan 2008

Photos courtesy R. Bessin and B. Newton, University of Kentucky
The Kentucky Critter Files are maintained by Blake Newton, Department of Entomology, University of Kentucky.
Contact: blaken@uky.edu

   
University of Kentucky Entomology/Kentucky Critter Files/Kentucky Spiders/Wolf Spiders