My Spider Project-Studying and Writing about Spider Behavior

Goals: The goal of this project is to give the student personal, hands-on experience observing and writing details of the fascinating behavior of spiders. I emphasize careful observation and gentle experimentation, leading to papers describing the behavior of the spiders. This project could easily be done with various insects.

Spider Behavior Project: Encourage students to observe the behavior of one or more captive or free-living spiders for a month. Provide a set of detailed questions about their behavior, to help focus students on various aspects of their biology. Students should take notes during the spider’s activity. I have my student’s write a paper describing the behavior and ecology of their spider. I ask for papers which could be used as general descriptions of behavior of a species, but many students enjoy writing a diary about the activities of ‘Charlotte’, their personal spider.

To facilitate the projects, I provide a sterile vermiculite/ top soil mix in sandwich bags for the bottom of cages (help hold moisture in the cage) and prey (crickets & house flies). My class is big, so we provide crickets in small plastic condiment cups, but for a smaller group the students could get their own prey from the cricket box. Students must provide their own cages, although I will burn ventilation holes in the boxes with a soldering iron.

Comments: “Take notes on the behaviors as you see them occur. You may have to encourage behaviors by providing prey for predation, lightly misting the spider with water to get it to groom, poking it gently to see how it responds to a predator. Spiders are likely to be more active in cages that have lots of places for them to attach webs or walk around on. Other behaviors will need to be observed by chance. I recommend keeping the spider(s) on your desk so you notice the 10 minutes a day when they are active and do interesting things. Increase your odds of seeing behavior by keeping several individuals. Offer different kinds of prey – crickets or flies or moths – to see how the spiders deal with them.&qquot;

Time Table: Spiders which live outside will die or hibernate within the first few frosts. In Upstate NY, we have until late September or mid October to capture spiders or watch them in the wild. House dwelling spiders can be found inside until late fall, but they will start to die soon thereafter. Tarantulas or emperor scorpions may live many years in captivity, but need to be treated with respect. All spiders can readily be captured, without actually touching them, with deli or yogurt cups.

Especially Good Spiders to Work With:

  • Jumping spiders (salticid)
  • Funnel web weavers (agelenid)
  • Cellar spiders (pholcid)
  • Cobweb spiders (theridiid)
  • Tarantulas
  • Diurnal orb weavers (Black & Yellow garden spider – Argiope sp.)

Arachnid Behavior Information Sheet

  1. What type of spider do you have or are you watching? What is its family, genus, and species?
  2. What does it do most of the time? Does it get more active at certain times of day?
  3. In what position does the spider spend most of its time? Is it hanging in a web, on the substrate, or hiding? Is its posture upside down or right side up? Does it ever walk on the ground? When it does, is it clumsy or graceful?
  4. Spiders tend to capture prey in three ways: In webs, by sitting and waiting until prey comes close, or by chasing it down (cursorial). How does your spider capture prey?
  5. What is the behavior of the spider prior to encountering prey?
  6. What happens during the moments before the spider attacks the prey? (Does the spider orient to the prey, does it tug on its web) How important did visual cues appear to be in identifying the location of the prey? How important were vibratory cues? How do you know?
  7. Describe prey capture in your spider in as much detail as possible. How does the spider initially immobilize its prey (biting, wrapping in silk, grabbing in its legs, both biting and wrapping)? Which legs are involved in prey wrapping? What happens to the prey once it is captured? Does the prey struggle (how long), does it get chewed up, or appear to remain in one piece? What is the spider doing after capturing the prey?
  8. Spider legs have many sensory hairs. Spiders often spend a fair bit of time grooming their legs. Describe their grooming behavior. How does the spider clean its legs? Which legs are cleaned first, second, etc.? Try to see the spiders mouth parts. What are they doing?
  9. Even spiders that don’t build webs, use silk. Describe how it is used. What does the silk look like (clear and hard to see, white and fluffy, fine line, fairly thick)?
  10. If your spider lives in a web, describe some of the web construction behavior.
  11. If your spider moults or lays eggs, describe the behavior. Often, the spider moults at night and you will find the exuviae (moulted skin) in the morning. Was its behavior different prior to moulting or laying eggs? Does it change behavior afterwards? Is there interaction between the mother and her spiderlings?