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How to Find Purse-webs
THIS IS A "NO-HARM" PROJECT - PLEASE DO NOT COLLECT OR RELOCATE SPIDERS OR DISTURB ANY HABITATS
We do not know enough about our spider fauna to take specimens from wild populations or to relocate them. Find the web but don't disturb the spider or its habitat.
There are two steps to finding purse-webs.
First - GO OUTSIDE.
Purse-web spiders are not found by staying indoors.* You'll need to go outside to find them - to a garden, park, forest or any other area where there are plants and soil - and bugs to eat! They can be found on trees deep in the woods, but also in bushes along surburban sidewalks and the untended brush surrounding certain parking lots. Individual purse-webs and colonies of various size have been reported from suburban and rural areas, and from woodlands and fallow fields. Few people have looked for them in the U.S., so we don't know all the types of places they might occur. Start by going outside, to somewhere they might be.
* There is one curious and notable exception to this rule - Andy Deans, Curator of Entomology at Penn State University, recently spotted some A. snetsingeri purse-webs on a fence near the paratype locality using Google Street View!
Second - Look for purse-webs at the base of trees, shrubs and walls.
Look for vertically-oriented webs attached at the base of trees and shrubs, along rock and cement walls, and on fences and fence-posts. In hilly terrain the webs are found on the downhill side of trees. Purse-webs may also be found laying horizontally near the ground in grass and thatch, or even reaching diagonally through complex vegetation, but those are harder to see. Vertical webs are the easiest to notice and every Atypid in the U.S. is known to make them. The webs can last for years in the same location and are quite durable.
Purse-webs are camouflaged with bits of dirt, leaves and moss to blend in and match their suroundings. They do that very well indeed! But with some experience you can learn to spot webs at the base of trees from 30 ft away and amaze your friends. If you are not sure if something is a web or not, gently touch it with a blade of grass to see if it 'gives' - the purse-web is collapsible and not rigid like a plant stem.
Detect different species?
At this time there is no way to distinguish between the purse-webs of different Atypid species. When you report the presence of any purse-webs you are helping to find that answer. First we find them. Then we investigate to determine species present, make a map, and learn their life histories.
Third - Look for gossamer in the spring.
"Third, I thought there were only two steps?" Well, this isn't actually searching for purse-webs, but it works. If you see lots of silk spread over vegetation and also spot spiderlings, check to see if they look like little tarantulas. If so, look around nearby for purse-webs.
The transient silk can be easier to see than a hidden purse-web. At Tyler Arboretum the annual spring emergence event happens somewhere from March to April, depending on weather. Once it begins there are 10-12 days of uneven spiderling activity, mostly in the morning hours. The visual effect they produce is sometimes dramatic and in other years the silk is hardly visible; in either case it quickly disappears over a few days. It's worth taking a closer look if you happen to notice silk tents or sheets on the vegetation.