Matt Moore’s office is a swamp fed by overflow from a large pond in Bulloch County. That’s where the local conservationist studies the habitat and behavior of reptiles and amphibians native to South Georgia. A self-taught naturalist, Moore was looking around the pond dam one night in July of 2015 when he discovered a species of spider never before documented this far north of Florida, an ogre-faced spider.
“I’ve always been into spiders and reptiles,” Moore said. “My first experience, I was less than eight-years-old, when I saw a hog-nosed snake crawling under the bushes and picked it up. I was so excited, I ran into the house to show my parents.”
Moore’s enthusiasm for the creatures most of us avoid extended through his public education at Sallie Zetterower and Julia P. Bryant Elementary Schools. In addition to parents, Thomas and Sunni Moore, he credits seventh grade science teacher Brenda Steadman with encouraging his outdoor pursuits.
After a stint at Georgia Southern and ten years in unfulfilling jobs, Moore chose to make a career out of the hobby he worked on daily – the conservation of reptiles and amphibians, especially the endangered ones.
He currently works part-time as a field technician for the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and part-time for the Orianne Society, a non-profit organization with a mission “to conserve critical ecosystems for imperiled reptiles and amphibians using science, applied conservation and education.” Moore also excels as a photographer, which helps him record the species he encounters.
It was at dusk, while looking for threatened reptiles in the swamp behind his parents’ home, that Moore discovered the ogre-faced spider. He was able to identify the spider by its distinctive characteristics.
“They have big fangs and bulgy eyes and long legs,” said Moore. “Unlike other spiders that drop from a single thread of silk, the ogre will build a scaffold attaching to a plant usually one to four feet above the ground and suspend itself, hanging head down, where it builds a web shaped like a casting net between its front legs to catch insects that might be flying by or jumping around. They’ll wrap the prey in the basket.”
The ogre hunts by sight at night and is the only spider to weave a cast net web, which made Moore’s identification unmistakable.
Moore contacted friend and colleague Dirk Stevenson, director of the Longleaf Savannas Initiative for the Orianne Society, about his discovery.
“Dirk said that the sub-tropical spider had never before been documented in Georgia, only in Florida, extreme southeast Alabama and Jamaica,” said Moore. “The discovery extended the range of the ogre by 150 miles from the nearest population in Florida. Since then, it has been documented in two more counties in southeast Georgia – Telfair and Glynn.”
The Orianne Society is now trying to figure the extent of the ogre’s range in South Georgia.
The discovery of the ogre by Moore in Bulloch County was big news generating stories in Savannah, Augusta and Atlanta media outlets including the Savannah Morning News and the Atlanta Journal Constitution.
Moore is grateful for the discovery because of the attention being brought to his wildlife conservation efforts.
“My primary motivation is the conservation of reptiles and amphibians that are marginalized, especially snakes and turtles losing habitat,” said Moore. “Since October 2015, I’ve been a field technician part-time with the DNR,” said Moore, “I’ve been working on a tortoise removal project from farm developments. I trapped all the gopher tortoises I could find for relocation. Gopher tortoises are a federally protected species west of the Mississippi. They are threatened in Georgia. We transferred them to a multi-acre pen in the forest for protection. Their habitat has since been saved from development and my job this past summer was to transfer them back home.”
The same property was the natural habitat of indigo snakes, another threatened species native to sandhill communities.
“The project morphed into also surveying for indigos last winter during November and December,” he said.
Moore uses a syringe to inject a tag into captured snakes to help identify and track them. The snakes are measured each time they are captured and assessed for illness or injury before being returned to their habitat.
In his conservation work with the Orianne Society, Moore is conducting a reptile survey for Snake Fungal Disease in Georgia.
“The fungal disease kills a lot of snakes. It’s a wasting disease,” said Moore. “It erodes the scales and the snakes waste away. You can compare it to the Aids epidemic in 1982; we have identified the fungus as the cause, but we don’t yet know what makes the snakes susceptible. In a short period of time we have seen both an increase in the number of snake species infected and the number of individual snakes infected with Snake Fungal Disease in Georgia, but we don’t know exactly how high the mortality rate is.”
Moore’s passion is fueled by the concern he has for the creatures he wants to protect.
“Major factors are degradation and fragmentation, also the intentional killing of snakes. It is illegal in Georgia to kill a non-venomous snake, there is a $1,000 fine. Most people kill snakes through miss-identification and fear. Of the 40+ species of snakes native to Georgia, only six are venomous.”
Education and research are also important components of Moore’s conservation efforts. He reaches out to groups sharing the conservation message with the help of volunteer Willah Vaigneur, who provides animals for teaching opportunities with the public.
“My greatest challenge is looking at the future with a positive attitude,” Moore said. “The mass amount of habitat destroyed and the public’s general attitude toward spiders and snakes makes it an up-hill battle that will never be over!”
Moore’s greatest reward is getting to see the animals in nature and being able to work at a job he loves.
“I’m blessed to have a job like this. I’m paid to do what I love to do. I have no typical days. I set my own schedule. My assignments are seasonal and are usually projects that I work on as needed until completed,” he said. “Without this job, I wouldn’t get to see the animals in the secret locations I get to experience.”
Right now, Moore is experiencing a complete change at his “office.” Hurricane Matthew rearranged everything.
“I spent years learning the swamp,” Moore said. “Now, I will have to learn all over again. I’m very interested in the long term effects the hurricane will have on the animals’ habitat.”
Editor’s Note: Anyone spotting the ogre-faced spider can send in a reliable photo along with the latitude and longitude of the spider’s location to the Orianne Society. For contact information visit www.oriannesociety.org.