Out in the forest, we’ve usually got our eyes up. We look for the birds we hear chirping, we peer into the trees for a raccoon or a deer or something a bit more thrilling. When we look down, it’s usually to sidestep rocks and roots.
Professor Greta Binford took her Lewis and Clark College invertebrate zoology class out to Oxbow Regional Park to look down. In the leaf litter and loam of the Ancient Forest, the students explored the tiny habitats that support the macro plants and animals above. The main lesson was how to identify and classify invertebrates. “Other goals,” Binford says, “were to blow their minds about the magnitude of biodiversity, how poorly we know it, and what a difference intact forests make, particularly for biodiversity on the forest floor.”
This is a world where tiny jumping spiders count as big predators. The animals here are measured in millimeters. And while they make up the majority of a forest’s animals, we rarely recognize them or their names: bristletails, harvestmen, springtails, hacklemesh spiders.
After a nighttime collection at Oxbow and a few other sites, Binford’s students photographed the invertebrates up close – real close – bringing us nose-to-antenna with animals near us every time we go to the forest.
Often small and not particularly long of limb or body, jumping spiders can be easily overlooked. Up close, though, these diminutive arachnids are wondrous to behold. If you are spellbound by this spider’s eyes, you are far from alone. Jumping spiders' prominent front pair of eyes may be cute, but a feature like this evolved for a reason. This female bronze jumper uses the acute color vision of her large eyes to locate and pounce on prey with extreme accuracy. Combined with three smaller pairs of eyes positioned at other angles on her head, she can see nearly 360 degrees around. – Nicole Oliver
The harvestmen are a diverse order of arachnids that inhabit ecosystems from the tropics to the poles. They have adapted varying levels of exoskeleton hardening to prevent water loss and to protect themselves from external threats in this wide range of environmental conditions. This harvestman, which doesn’t seem to have a common name, was dubbed Hesperonemastoma modestum. The thorns that appear in a “V” on the back of harvestman serve as a viable defense against predation. – Michael Stein
These nocturnal, wingless insects are said to be evolutionarily primitive, due to their inability to fly. However, jumping bristletails have the ability to use their three-pronged tails to spring about a foot in the air, hence their name. Their partly retractable mouthparts allow them to feed on algae, lichen and plant debris. Because their exoskeleton is so thin and prone to dehydration, jumping bristletails commonly reside under cool, damp areas, especially under bark on logs. – Josie Graydon
These animals are called springtails because they possess a furcula, a tail-like structure on the underside of their abdomen that they snap against the ground to fling themselves into the air for rapid movement and evasion of predators. They are some of the most abundant macroscopic animals in soil and leaf litter habitats. With estimates of up to 100,000 individuals per square meter of leaf litter, their abundance in these habitats is second only to mites. They play a critical role in soil habitats around the world. – Bryce Gaudern
This cobweb spider’s Latin name, Rhomphaea fictilium, could be translated as “javelin made of clay.” Its abnormally long abdomen is incredibly flexible, which allows the spider to change its shape and camouflage itself. Unlike most of their close spider relatives that feed on insects, this spider hunts other spiders. They often enter the webs of other spiders, which they pluck, producing vibrations that imitate entangled prey in order to lure the web’s owner into an attack. – Grace Bird