Spiders in their dotage

July 3, 2011 • 10:08 am

If, like me, you’re feeling the ravages of age, no longer lithe and limber, and you’re starting to realize that you grunt every time you sit down, take heart.  Other animals also fall apart with age.  ScienceShot reports that spiders do too:

On Saturday, biologists will present research at the Society for Experimental Biology annual conference in Glasgow showing that as spiders age, they build shabbier, less perfect webs than they did in their youth. As a young creepy-crawly, the European house spider, Zygiella x-notata, weaves intricately patterned webs with regular spacing and exact angles, like this one in the left photo, built by a 17-day-old spider. The web in the right photo was built by a 188-days-old spider nearing the end of its life, and its web design is far more irregular and shows numerous gaps. Researchers suspect that, like in humans, the spider’s central nervous system breaks down in old age.

Photo by Mylene Anatoux

I love the two comments on the page:

Maybe the old dude just doesn’t care what the other spiders think anymore. Maybe it is attitude not capability. Again, just like humans…


i have to agree with Mike, perhaps its not the fact that its older but that it knows its nearing the end of its life and just no longer cares enough about due to its impending death, perhaps this too is why elderly folks don’t seem to give a f&%$ ?

h/t: Matthew Cobb

40 thoughts on “Spiders in their dotage

    1. Orb weavers usually build a new web every day which is why they aren’t full of old corpses. Older spiders might slack off though! This web looks pretty clean so it probably hasn’t been there all that long.

  1. Maybe the “cob gland” doesn’t produce as much at an old age, so the spider has to deal with less resources? And if the web works just as well, who cares how it looks? Old spiders get more mileage from their web?

  2. Those comments are priceless. So the spider, like the Nastyass Honey Badger of Youtube fame, just doesn’t give a f@%k?

    The idea that spiders do this through volition instead of inherent neurological breakdown makes me want to roll my eyes. Do they think “Charlotte’s Web” is nonfiction?

    As an aging ape with aches and lapses of memory, I suddenly feel a kinship with spiders.

  3. This immediately calls to mind a photograph in one of those old Time/Life science books (The Mind?) purporting to show a web produced by a spider on acid. Can’t find it on the intertubes, though. Somebody needs to correct that.

      1. It’s those kind of striking parallels that make me suspect that cognition across species is much more alike than different — and certainly far more alike than most care to acknowledge.

        If a given substance induces certain brain states that have predictable observable effects in humans, we conclude that two humans under the influence of the same substance and exhibiting the same behaviors are experiencing essentially the same cognitive effects.

        If the exact same substance given to a non-human induces essentially the same objectively-observable behaviors, why should the conclusion be that the one-and-only hidden variable in the equation is somehow different? Aside from the general human tendency to see humans (and only humans) as the n’est plus ultra, what equally-hidden mechanism can account for the claimed differences?

        We all know that non-human animals are often excellent (though, of course, not perfect) models for human physiology in all other areas of pharmacology. And, whaddyaknow, they’re also excellent (again, not perfect) models for psychoactive pharmacology. How could that possibly be the case unless the psyches involved are similar enough to also serve as excellent (yet imperfect) models of human psyches?



        1. Seems to me you’re reading a lot into those distorted webs. In what objectively measurable way are they “essentially the same” as the behavior of drugged humans?

          In fact my first reaction on seeing that caffeine web was pretty much the opposite of yours. “Wow,” I thought, “that spider’s neural net must be much shallower than ours for the drug to have that direct an effect on web architecture.” I don’t see any clear analogue there with the behavior of caffeinated humans.

          1. I don’t think I suggested that the analogies are perfect — at least, I certainly hope I didn’t.

            Consider housecats for a moment. We know that many pharmaceuticals have the same basic effects on them as humans, which is why the same drugs are prescribed in similar quantities on a body mass / drug volume basis for the same conditions. We also know that theobromine, a very mild stimulant found in chocolate and tea, is fatal to cats in even surprisingly low dosages.

            But similarities and parallels are the rule, not the exception.

            Such also seems to be the case with spiders and their webs.

            With your specific example of caffeine, what do you suppose would be the effect of a reduced dosage? Might it not more closely resemble somebody hyped up on a pot of coffee as opposed to somebody who just OD’d on a half a bottle of No-Doze?



            1. I’m not even sure what it would mean for a spider’s web to “closely resemble” human behavior (drugged or not). By what objective metric do you propose to measure such resemblance? Without such a metric, how can you be sure you’re not just using the webs as a Rorschach blot to confirm your prior bias?

              1. That would actually be pretty easy to test, though I’m afraid we’re a few decades too late for it to get approved by a research review board. (And, let me hasten to add, it’s a damn good thing that’s the case.)

                Train some subjects to make a spiderweb on a human scale, say a 6-foot web, using yarn and glue and the like. Teach them to use the same basic techniques as the spiders themselves do.

                Then, once they’ve mastered the craft, surreptitiously administer the drugs in question at the dosages in question, tell them to build some webs, and observe the results.

                You’d want to pay attention not only the the final outcome of the webs, but also the patterns of motions, time spent idle or in non-productive activity, and the like.

                Again, any researcher who actually proposed such a study should be called on the carpet, fired with prejudice if he tried to go ahead with it anyway, and subjected to criminal prosecution if he actually carried it out.

                But, ignoring ethical reasons why it’d be a horrible experiment, the basic principle would be quite easy to test.



      2. Oh my goodness, Ben and Gregory. I hope you aren’t taking the information at Jerry’s link seriously! Please click the link within to “mental states” to see that it is pure poe.

        1. My apologies – I should have done more checking. Apparently New Scientist did publish drug-induced spider web research done at NASA in 1995. The “mental states” link was the only poeful interpretation at the trinity.edu site. I should have checked further before posting.

  4. maybe the older spider has learned that he can catch just as many stupid flies and other critters as the web made by the younger spider. Maybe the older spider is anorexic and needs counseling …or… . Maybe the younger spider had OCD and needs counseling too. Let’s have another STUDY $$$

    1. Yuk. Re-watching that, I saw the caption at the end. “First Church of Christ, Filmmaker”

      WTF. I guess those Christians have a sense of humor. I still love the parody.

  5. Oh my…as someone who frequently runs or walks in races (marathons, etc.) I’ve had the pleasure of watching my times slow. I’ve watched the amount of weight I lift dwindle.

    I now spend more of my “research” times writing pedagogical articles.

    But now I know that I am not alone. 🙂

  6. I resent those remarks. The older web is just older and has been hit many times by the ole spider’s many “catches” and it is busy digesting and resting and will repair it later. I’m only 84, just had a fine veal marsala brunch and glass of red wine; I think I’ll take a nap.

  7. If, like me, you’re feeling the ravages of age, no longer lithe and limber, and you’re starting to realize that you grunt every time you sit down, take heart. Other animals also fall apart with age.

    Interesting question, whether the behaviour changes are the consequence of neurology or knowledge and wisdom – probably some of both. But somewhat apropos are Emerson’s observations, most probably on the second:

    Old age brings along with its uglinesses the comfort that you will soon be out of it – which ought to be a substantial relief to such discontented pendulums as we are. To be out of the war, out of debt, out of the drouth, out of the blues, out of the dentist’s hands, out of the second thoughts, mortifications, and remorses that inflict such twinges and shooting pains, – out of the next winter, and the high prices, and company below your ambition – surely these are soothing hints.

  8. I work with a guy who is always telling me not to “make that noise” because it “makes you sound old”. I’ve tried and tried to get him to understand that the noise-making performs the same function as a kiai in Karate, but he continues to be hopelessly misguided.

    I rather like spiders, and tend to leave them alone when I come across them in the house.

  9. I’m curious; what’s the cause of death for spiders with web building disabilities? Do they starve to death because of it, or do they die of other/”natural” age related causes?

  10. Yet further vindication of Ben Goren’s and my (and others’) take on the similarity of all animal minds.

    Marella, coiner of the FOTI word, “eagly”.

    1. I am still a big fan of “eagly”, but am now puzzled by FOTI. All I could find online was “Friends of Tobi Island” or “Fiberoptic Transillumination.”

  11. Crotchety old spider just simply doesn’t shive a git anymore ….

    “Fly into the web, don’t fly — whaddo I care? Eh … “

  12. Last night I went to bed feeling fairly ok…I wake up this morning feeling like I was beaten with a baseball bat all night. Seriously…my left ribs hurt – I think they are broken. I wouldn’t want to spend three hours making a pretty nest either. Just give me some coffee and at this point…possibly a vicodin.

  13. Nest? Sigh..web, of course. I should also add that I have a couple of suspicious bites on my hand(glares at spider).

  14. Maybe the older guy has become better at catching live prey without so much web-building? But I think the neuro-degeneration theory is still the best.
    Please check out my arachnid poetry on my blog!

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