So, yeah, spider sex. This post is inspired by my favorite salesgirl at my local bakery, with whom I talk „Ugly Critters“ a lot. She hates them all with a vengeance and doesn’t tire of asking me „What’s the point?“ More on „What’s the point“ later. Today, I bring you spider sex.
A common misconception about spider sex is that spider females are heartless bitches who eat their males after sex. Well, I’m sure some spider females are heartless bitches, some spider males probably are heartless jerks, and some spider females eat their males after sex. Most don’t, though.
Spider sex is incredibly complicated. It starts with courtship – after all, most spider species are pretty solitary, many spiders defend their territory against other spiders. Besides… well, male spiders do actually look like easy prey to females at first glance. Hence, courtship. Courtship is as diverse as spiders, really, it ranges from „Hey, you smell great“ to „Look at my awesome mating dance“. Some use visual signals, some serenade the female by tapping her web. Some ritually bind the female with a few pieces of flimsy silk. The female’s response ranges from stunned acceptance to the most adorable (I think) display of affection in the spider realm: The love life of jumping spiders.
If you don’t know about jumping spiders, go look them up: They’re the adorable teddy bears of spiderkind. Just with excellent eyesight due to their two huge, black, forward facing eyes. They are very small and rock this beautiful, often colorful coat. They stalk their prey and pounce on it (hence the name) like cats, and this is probably just me, but I can’t help but attribute emotion to them. Watch them stalk and pounce and miss, and if you’re like me, you’ll probably find them express frustration. Puzzlement at seeing my camera, dismissing it if they’re bold, hiding if they’re shy. Excitement. Curiosity. (They bring it out in me, I’m sorry. )
With their keen eye-sight and lovely colors, it’s no surprise their courtship consists of an elaborate mating dance. The male tries to woo the female, and if he succeeds, no, he doesn’t get eaten. In some species, they move in together, they share the female’s lair for a few days (which is a huge commitment if you’re only alive for a summer) and mate now and then.
In this species, Evarcha arcuata, the female carries the smaller male around for a while. This way, they go hunting together – well, the female hunts, the male sits on her back and probably whispers sweet nothings. Which she probably can’t even hear because as you can see, all he sees from THAT perspective is her butt. Which leads us to another insanely complicated topic: Spider anatomy.
Spiders can’t simply *mate*, you know. Their sperm and egg-producing organs are all nicely tucked away inside their bodies, and I guess they could just press their respective openings together and thus produce offspring. Birds do that. But no. Spiders had to invent a method that’s so complicated it seems to come straight from a weird, kinky movie: To prepare for mating, the spider male weaves a small web and then goes ahead and, ahem, places a drop of sperm onto that web. Then he turns around and dips his pedipalps into the mess. Pedipalps, you ask? Those are the smaller, tactile „feet“ in front of the mouth parts. Yes, the legs they basically use as hands. With which they suck up their sperm. I’ll let you dwell on that.
Male pedipalps can be very complicated. The structures on and in them that have to do with mating are specific to spider species and can be used to tell apart similar-looking species, and mostly they only fit females of the correct species. Mature males sometimes have these big, impressive pedipalps, and if you see a spider running across your carpet with huge, swollen pedipalps, you know he’s just a regular guy looking for a ladyspider. (Be kind and show him the door to your basement instead of crushing his hopes by crushing him. ) So, once the sperm is inside the pedipalps, and the female has been properly wooed, procreation may begin. Yay!
The structures the males use to transfer sperm from their pedipalps to the female’s genital opening are so complex and diverse I can’t really do them justice here. Let’s just say it’s a complicated mess of parts with which the male injects sperm into the female. Jumping spiders have something called the hematodochae, soft parts of their reproductive system that inflate hydraulically and grOW IN SIZE. Simply put, they fill with what spiders have for blood. Sounds familiar? If you ever wondered what that looks like, you’re welcome:
The female cooperates, as you can see, she turns her abdomen so the little guy can reach.
And if you ever wondered what a spider looking dolefully at his erection looks like, well, look no further:
Evarchas do this for a few days, they hunt together, they mate, the female carries the male on her back. And then they just part ways. The female may mate with someone else, the male may do the same. And then, eventually, the female lays her eggs. Some spider females guard them and protect their young, some carry them around and feed their kids – but that’s another story I may tell another time.
All images taken in the wild (my backyard) using a Canon 5D III, the Canon MP-E 65/2.8 and Canon’s twin flash. No tripod. No tricks.
(Disclaimer: Of course I took liberties and dumbed down stuff, spiders are incredibly complex and diverse, and I didn’t want to write a book. I recommend the wonderful „Biology of Spiders“ by Rainer Foelix for further reading. All text and images by me, Antje Schulte, 2015. Please ask if you’d like to use my images. [I know nobody would want to use the text.])