Another amazingly industrious spider

[JAC: I have to weigh in to express my amazement at this phenomenon. I don’t know if this spider’s behavior is learned or genetically hard-wired—or perhaps some combination of both—but it’s surprising and wonderful. The great thing about being a biologist, or being a layperson who follows biology, is that stuff like this appears on a regular basis, providing constant intracranial infusions of wonder.]

by Matthew Cobb

I don’t know how I missed this. It was shown on the BBC TV programme about Madagascar in 2011, and features spiders that raise shells into vegetation in order to spend the night safely and damply. Quite remarkable. And they observed it *twice*! I have posted the tl;dw version as a gif (pronounced…) below. But watch the video, it’s only 2 minutes long.

obDzCuL - Imgur


    Posted November 19, 2014 at 7:52 am | Permalink


    • Mark Joseph
      Posted November 19, 2014 at 10:11 pm | Permalink

      Oh yes! I had never seen this before, and am blown away.

      One question (the only one I ever ask in science posts): What family is this spider in? I didn’t see it mentioned as I read through the comments.

      • Posted November 20, 2014 at 7:49 am | Permalink

        I’m not good at IDing spiders. But I’m assuming it’s Olios coenobita, which would put it in the Sparassidae. The European spiders who do the same thing are jumping spiders, Salticidae.

  2. eric
    Posted November 19, 2014 at 7:55 am | Permalink

    Hhis has got to count as ‘tool use.’

  3. Tulse
    Posted November 19, 2014 at 8:03 am | Permalink

    A-frickin-mazing! (And more than a bit scary that spiders can do something like this.)

    I don’t know that much about spider cognitive capacity, but I would presume that this must be genetically determined, as I can’t imagine a spider being able to learn this.

    Which raises a more general question — to what extent do we see learning of complex behaviours in arachnids, or for that matter, insects?

    • Posted November 19, 2014 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

      I think some of the early psychotropics web studies offered a few insights towards complex arachnid behavior.

    • Posted November 20, 2014 at 7:54 am | Permalink

      Flying insects can learn to avoid a given spider web once they’ve escaped it–again, my co-author, Catherine L. Craig, conducted these experiments, building on previous work by others showing that flies and stingless bees can be trained. I don’t know of any research (which doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist) on spider learning. But Robert Jackson and his lab have done some pretty amazing work on jumping spiders and how they piece together information from their surroundings as they hunt prey.

    • darrelle
      Posted November 20, 2014 at 8:03 am | Permalink

      There have been studies that show that certain species of jumping spiders have the cognitive ability to observe prey at a distance, for example the spider is on a plant and the prey is on another plant, plot a path to the prey and remember it, and follow the plotted path even when the prey is not visible while doing so. They are apparently able to do this even for fairly complex paths involving negotiating multiple obstacles, not merely a close to straight line movement toward the prey.

      I recall that the people who did the particular study I reviewed were surprised by their findings because it had been previously thought that due to the size of the typical spider brain, the number of neurons, that the basic computing capacity just wasn’t there for such a complex problem. The study prompted speculation of just how the hell to solve such complex problems with such limited computing capacity. I would be very interested in finding out if the study, and similar ones, led to anyone devising some cool new algorithms for visual navigation in robotics.

      • darrelle
        Posted November 20, 2014 at 8:07 am | Permalink

        Ahh. There’s an expert in the room. Maybe you might be able to add and or correct my recollection here?

        • Posted November 20, 2014 at 8:10 am | Permalink

          If my memory is correct, you’ve recounted those studies well. That’s Jackson’s lab. It’s pretty amazing work on the part of the lab and the spiders.

          • darrelle
            Posted November 20, 2014 at 10:16 am | Permalink

            Thanks for the response. 🙂

      • Mark Joseph
        Posted November 20, 2014 at 10:13 pm | Permalink

        Yes, I read about this somewhere. The capacities of the spider were so amazing that someone speculated on the possibility that those spiders had some form of consciousness! Definitely something I’d like to read more about.

        • John Scanlon, FCD
          Posted November 21, 2014 at 7:55 am | Permalink

          ‘Some form of consciousness’ is an odd thing to speculate on. About as meaningful a speculation as whether they have free will, I’d have thought.
          What jumping spiders definitely do have is craftiness, style and charisma. Those are objective properties, and not subject to speculation.

  4. bonetired
    Posted November 19, 2014 at 8:03 am | Permalink

    Do spiders suffer from dizziness? Because if they do …

    • rickflick
      Posted November 19, 2014 at 8:18 am | Permalink

      Maybe they love the effect of the spinning sensation on their neural networks. I’d say the spin was deliberate.

  5. Hempenstein
    Posted November 19, 2014 at 8:06 am | Permalink

    Fantastic! And Leslie, Catherine – since you’re doubtless looking at this one, I recommend Spider Silk any chance I get. It may be out of print, but there seem to be plenty of copies here. Sadly, tho, I haven’t prevailed on the uber-bibliophilic yet hidebound arachnophobic Daughter of Hempenstein.

    Also NB, the Wikipedia page for spider silk is quite good, too.

    • Posted November 19, 2014 at 9:04 am | Permalink

      Thanks! It’s not out of print, at least as far as we know. There’s a Hili connection here, in that I think the first report of this behavior appeared in a Polish journal in 1961–the behavior is not common but also not unknown. The amazing thing about the BBC team is that they managed to film it happening–when you think about what would stand in the way of capturing this on film, it’s quite a feat itself. I’m checking a few sources and will report back.

      • jwthomas
        Posted November 19, 2014 at 9:20 am | Permalink

        You can even get it on Kindle for $9.99! I’ve wishlisted it.

    • Mark Joseph
      Posted November 19, 2014 at 10:13 pm | Permalink

      So do I! And, as far as I know, the book is not out of print. I bought mine probably only a year ago from one of the usual suspects, Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

      I need a cool moniker like that for my daughters, too…

  6. Hempenstein
    Posted November 19, 2014 at 8:12 am | Permalink

    And BTW, is the vertical lift entirely from the spider tugging on the strands, or does any contraction occur from dessication of the silk once it has been extruded?

    • Posted November 19, 2014 at 9:10 am | Permalink

      There is probably a little contraction, but spiders are stronger than they look, and they pull on silk all the time–all the spiders in the largest branch of spider evolution pull it out of their spinnerets with their legs, all web spinners “tune up” their webs by pulling threads to make them tighter, and then there are spiders like this one and like Hyptiotes, the triangle spider: Look for the David Attenborough clip on that.

      • Posted November 19, 2014 at 9:25 am | Permalink

        I just looked at the film again. If the narration is correct, it’s not a matter of pulling a lot on the threads. It seems the spider maybe chooses different attachment points in sequence and attaches a shorter line each time. I would think we might see more rolling of the shell in that case, but given what small distances we’re talking about, maybe not. Pretty clever, but also a behavior one could more easily imagine evolving by chance then selection over time. We’d have to grill someone who’s spent a lot of time watching these spiders to know whether they actually go looking for shells, whether all individuals do this, or whether it’s something that just happens opportunistically once in a while. I could imagine this shell being raised by chance much like the pebble we saw raised in another WEIT post and then the spider sheltering in it as spiders often shelter in found enclosures or enclosures they’ve built themselves out of silk. I’m speculating a lot here. I’ll report back if I find any information based on actual observation.

  7. Posted November 19, 2014 at 8:21 am | Permalink

    I love that spiders do such remarkable feats of engineering. As Dawkins wrote in (I think it was) The Greatest Show on Earth, if we found that dolphins were fashioning nets to capture prey we would freak out. This little trick is just icing on an already tasty cake. An infinitesimal brain, no muscles and glands that spew eight different kinds of silk – WTF, Evolution?!

  8. Posted November 19, 2014 at 8:25 am | Permalink

    Pretty impressive – and, speaking of eight-legged creatures, have you seen the film of hermit crabs queuing up to change shell?

    • Jesper Both Pedersen
      Posted November 19, 2014 at 10:40 am | Permalink

      “Moving all up…”

    • rickflick
      Posted November 19, 2014 at 10:53 am | Permalink

      That link was not available in my neck of the woods.
      This one works:
      www dot bbc dot com/earth/story/20141103-hermit-crab

      I hope that is legible.

  9. mordacious1
    Posted November 19, 2014 at 8:38 am | Permalink

    Spiders are wonderful. I taught my kids to re-locate them when they’re found in the house, but I think they still get smooshed when I’m not around.

  10. Jesper Both Pedersen
    Posted November 19, 2014 at 8:48 am | Permalink

    I think I want to be a spider after this homo sapiens stuff is done.

    • Posted November 19, 2014 at 9:06 am | Permalink

      I can predict pretty confidently that there will still be spiders after this homo sapiens stuff is done. They’ve already survived a number of mass extinctions.

      • Jesper Both Pedersen
        Posted November 19, 2014 at 9:09 am | Permalink

        I’d very much hope so.

        Also, it might do wonders for my mild arachnophobia. 🙂

    • jwthomas
      Posted November 19, 2014 at 9:23 am | Permalink

      Still, being reincarnated as a cockroach is probably a better bet for survival.

      • Jesper Both Pedersen
        Posted November 19, 2014 at 10:12 am | Permalink

        But who has the most fun?

  11. GBJames
    Posted November 19, 2014 at 8:52 am | Permalink

    TOTALLY amazing.

  12. Posted November 19, 2014 at 9:11 am | Permalink


  13. Posted November 19, 2014 at 9:24 am | Permalink

    It would take me dozens if not hundreds of lines to list all of the things that I know because David Attenborough told me about it.
    Itsy-bitsy spiders can co-opt snail shells and engineer them into high rise apartments.
    Thanks Dave.

  14. Posted November 19, 2014 at 9:43 am | Permalink

    Here’s an excerpt from
    Some Little Known Aspects of Spider Behavior
    Author(s): B. J. Kaston
    Source: American Midland Naturalist, Vol. 73, No. 2 (Apr., 1965), pp. 336-356

    Kaston was a major US araneologist.

    Of course,even nonweb spiders construct retreats, inside which
    they hide and guard their eggs. Often the spiders simply take ad- vantage of any hole in the ground, fissurein the bark, or other con- venient place. Occasionally, however, they specialize and some have taken to using empty gastropod shells. Bristowe (1958) reports the salticid Euophrys browningi from whelk shells, and Thomas (1953) comments on the rather common finding of Clubiona caerulescens, some species of Drassodes, and Dysdera, in snail shells. Likewise, Denis & Mikulska (1960) record instances for the salticids Hyllus sp., Pellenes tripunctatusand P. brevis. But more remarkable are those instances cited for P. nigrociliatusvar. bilunulatus, and the sparassid Olios coenobita. Data on the latter species are also given by Thomas, and by Chopard (1961), and on the formerby Mikulska (1961a,
    1961b) .
    Many females of P. nigrociliatus were found by Mikulska in a pine
    forest in Poland, where she noted that each spider was inside a snail shell suspended in the vegetation. In the laboratory one spider weighing only 10 mg was observed to have tied up and raised a distance of 5 cm off the substratum a shell weighing 160 mg. Each female constructs an operculum of silk, pierced by several holes through which the palpi or legs may be extruded, and the eggs are deposited within the shell. Olios coenobita is found in Madagascar, and it too lives in snail shells which it suspends in vegetation. The shells are raised anywhere from 15 to 80 cm above the ground, and one spider weighing 23 mg raised a shell weighing 801 mg, almost 35 times its own weight. The females deposit their eggs inside the shells, and, after hatching, the spiderlingsremain there for a while before seeking a shell of their own. Each time they molt they seek out another, larger, shell to occupy, reminding one of the behavior of the hermit crabs, Pagurus.”

    • Diane G.
      Posted November 20, 2014 at 11:13 pm | Permalink

      Incredible stuff! Thanks Leslie!

  15. Posted November 19, 2014 at 10:59 am | Permalink

    That is pretty cool. I am a spider nut who never tires of watching my 8 legged friends build their webs or capture prey, with surety and efficiency that comes from instinctive behaviors. But this one is still surprising.
    Yet again, another reason why I drop by here several times a day.

  16. Posted November 19, 2014 at 11:19 am | Permalink

    A parent should show this clip to their kids, and explain that this spider spent about an hour of its short life, hauling up a snail shell that weighed more than it did. So you should spend a couple seconds picking up your laundry!

    • Melissa Johnson
      Posted November 19, 2014 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

      that’s funny. That’s kinda what I was thinking! Also about my own lazy self.

  17. Heather Hastie
    Posted November 19, 2014 at 11:45 am | Permalink


    This reminds me of the octupii that carry around a couple of discarded coconut shell halves discarded in the water after eating/drinking, to hide in from predators.

    • darrelle
      Posted November 20, 2014 at 10:23 am | Permalink

      uh oh. Something very strange must be happening. No PPs (Pluralization Pedants) have commented on your use of “octupii” (the horror) yet, and your comment has been up for hours! What the hell is going on? Rapture?

      • Mark Joseph
        Posted November 20, 2014 at 10:23 pm | Permalink

        Ask, and ye shall receive.

        “Octopodes” is my all-time favorite word.

        • Diane G.
          Posted November 20, 2014 at 11:15 pm | Permalink


          • Mark Joseph
            Posted November 21, 2014 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

            I style myself more of a “panpedant”. If it can be corrected, I’m your guy!

            • Diane G.
              Posted November 21, 2014 at 6:01 pm | Permalink

              *like* 🙂

        • merilee
          Posted November 21, 2014 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

          Great word; just have to remember to put the empha’sis on the right sylla’ble…

          • Posted November 21, 2014 at 10:25 pm | Permalink

            Like “antipodes”.

            /@ / San Diego

            PS. I wonder what an “antipus” is like?

            • Posted November 21, 2014 at 10:28 pm | Permalink

              Your face? ( Ant’s puss…)

            • merilee
              Posted November 22, 2014 at 10:33 pm | Permalink

              If anybody’s awake, please send a random comment/response. My WEIT has been having what Diana called a brain fart, and I think/hope I’m resubscribed.

              • Posted November 22, 2014 at 11:08 pm | Permalink



              • Posted November 22, 2014 at 11:34 pm | Permalink

                Brilliantly haphazard.

              • Diane G.
                Posted November 22, 2014 at 11:32 pm | Permalink

                Merilee? Are you there? CAN YOU HEAR ME NOW?!

              • Posted November 22, 2014 at 11:38 pm | Permalink

                🎺yes I am up much too late. Rec’d LOUD and clear. Thanks, Diane. Will wait till morning to see which ones I’ve missed.

              • Mark Joseph
                Posted November 23, 2014 at 7:21 am | Permalink

                Random comment/response.

              • Posted November 23, 2014 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

                Thanks, Mark. I think I’m re-subscribed. Now just have to go back and catch up with the pearls of wisdom I missed🐸

              • GBJames
                Posted November 23, 2014 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

                Ah, the perils of wisdom….

                I’ll get my coat now.

  18. Posted November 19, 2014 at 11:53 am | Permalink

    Awesome. The first spider didn’t get it wrong, it was just having fun before finishing the job. Did you see the spin that shell got when the wind picked up? I’d be tempted.

    It kinda makes you think about animal/insect neurology and cognitive capability.

  19. Melissa Johnson
    Posted November 19, 2014 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

    I feel really dumb compared to this spider.
    I can’t wait to show this clip to my family.

  20. Posted November 19, 2014 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

    My favorite spider “trick” is found in funnel web spiders who inhabit the southwest USA. In Evolutionary Game Theory the strategy that bests all other strategies (Hawk, Dove, Bourgeois, etc etc) is ASSESSOR. Assessor avoids getting into contests that one can be beaten and killed or injured, but enters any other contest where one has a high probability of winning – to gain a necessary life resource. Ideal spider web locations in the desert are rare and desperately important to survival. In a funnel web spider “contest” the spiders “weigh each other” by using the dynamics of “web bouncing”. The smaller spider (probable loser) retreats without injury. So clever and so mathematically correct.

    • Posted November 19, 2014 at 6:29 pm | Permalink

      Fascinating! I didn’t know about that. Can you point me to any papers, please?

      • Posted November 20, 2014 at 11:06 am | Permalink

        This research was done by Susan Riechart, now teaching at the University of Tennessee. She did a really clever proof of the Aggressor Strategy behaviour by putting a tiny lead weight on the back of small ordinarily “loser” spiders so that in the web bouncing they turned out as the “big guys”…. and thereby won the contests with the added weight.
        Paper refs:
        Riechard and Hendrick 1993 “A Test for Correlation among Fitness-Linked Behaviour” Animal Behavior 46 669-675
        Riechart S. “Games Spiders Play” Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology 3 135-162

        • Posted November 20, 2014 at 11:13 am | Permalink


        • Posted November 20, 2014 at 11:16 am | Permalink

          oops … for “Aggressor” in last post please read “Assessor”…

          Also, I think she published a joint paper with Maynard Smith on this but I can’t find the reference

          • Posted November 20, 2014 at 11:26 am | Permalink

            Got it!
            Maynard Smith, J., Riechert, S. E. A conflicting-tendency model of
            spider antagonistic behaviour. Animal Behaviour 32: 564-78.

            Unfortunately behind a firewall

        • Diane G.
          Posted November 20, 2014 at 11:17 pm | Permalink

          I love research like that!

  21. amy
    Posted November 19, 2014 at 5:38 pm | Permalink

    Cool video! I’m amazed! 🙂

  22. brianmatlock
    Posted November 19, 2014 at 6:17 pm | Permalink

    Damn I’m lazy.

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