The Secrets of Spider Seduction

  • By Michael Rivera
  • Posted 04.25.18
  • NOVA

Can scientists stomach hours of spider sex in order to understand their language? The key is tuning in to their good vibrations.

Running Time: 02:56


The Secrets of Spider Seduction

Published April 23, 2018

Damian Elias: Oh my god, I've probably spent tens of thousands of hours watching spiders have sex, hearing spiders have sex thinking about spiders having sex.

Now he is really inching up closer…

Spiders don't have ears, and so they can't detect airborne sound. Instead, spiders detect vibrations with their feet.

So he’s doing a sidling display there, they're really exposing a lot of the ornaments that they have on their face. And those oftentimes are species-specific. Females need to know that it isn't a predator that’s trying to eat them.

Narrator: Now, the “singing” kicks in...

Elias: There, there is the introductory display. Essentially, it’s like you know, listen to this, now I’m going to start to tell you a bunch of information about myself.

And so now he’s going to go through a series of different signals.

Narrator: First the scrape...

Elias: Right there—that’s a scrape.

Narrator: By counting the parasites on over a hundred spiders, Damian found that the louder the scrape the fewer the parasites.

Elias: What they’re telling the female is “I’m healthy, I’m free of parasites.”

Narrator: Next, the thump…

Elias: The thumps are probably to kind of make sure they maintain the females’ attention.

Narrator: And once they’ve snagged that—time to put on the moves!

Elias: So the third leg displays serve to draw attention to these ornaments that are on the third legs and they kind of like shake them around.

Narrator: And depending on how bright they are, Damian thinks that these tell the female about his past.

Elias: And we have buzzes, these long tonal signals that inform the female about the male’s size. So, the louder it is, the deeper it is, the more the female wants them.

You can see that the female now is just like really looking at the male, really looking at what he’s trying to do.

Narrator: For the guy, the stakes are high. They aren’t just singing for their supper, they’re singing to make sure they don’t become supper.

Elias: When females are assessing males, they’re deciding on whether they’re a potential mate or whether a potential meal.

So right now that he is buzzing so he’s getting really close, so he’s really going to kind of like wrapping up, trying to get this female to mate with him. Now he’s really in the dangerous parts of the display. So, it’s getting faster and faster, now he’s going to make a copulation attempt.

Oh, the female right there said no way.

It's hard not to sort of feel sorry for that male. And it's especially the case if the male is really trying his heart out, and he gets eaten. Then I just feel absolutely terrible.



Digital Producer
Michael Rivera
Michael Bicks & Anna Lee Strachan
© WGBH Educational Foundation 2018

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