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Gardening Carol O'Meara

10/15/2006

Fall is spider’s season of love

 Send the children from the room. Normally this is a family column, but in celebration of October, I want to share a Halloween love story.

Recently, I was asked if it’s true that spiders scream while mating. A friend had read this in the Fort Collins paper, and wanted to know if it’s true. This set me to thinking ...

Why would they? From the female’s perspective, the wooing and winning of love often involves having to endure the male dancing about, rushing in to tap her on the head to see if she’s interested and dashing away in case she’s not. This goes on, back and forth, until the male, convinced of success at winning her heart, gently enfolds her in his arms. All eight of them. Who wouldn’t scream at being held in arms covered in spines and tipped with claws?

Beware of fangs

How delighted she must be when he runs his fangs in a loving caress along the back of her head. Oh, yes, the male doesn’t like to approach the front — that’s where her fangs are, after all, and one mustn’t take chances. His embrace is from the back, and since the female is typically much larger than the male, he has to hold on somehow. His fangs come in handy to use in gripping her in the embrace. How romantic.

If this weren’t enough, ladies, consider that the male spider has not one, but two pedipalps – the male spider genitalia — with which to woo. There’s a reason for this we’ll talk about later.

Female spiders aren’t the only ones who have good reason to scream. There’s a lot of risk involved for the male and the whole episode is one long stressful event. After his final molt, a male spider will leave his web in search of a female. He may no longer hunt or be interested in food. Instead, he is so consumed with finding the female that he may wander quite a ways to find her.

This often leads him into danger, such as other spiders, predatory birds or into human houses. Males wandering in the fall are a large proportion of spiders found in our homes, often meeting a tragic end under some human’s shoe. The female doesn’t engage in such nonsense — she has better sense than to give up her food and housing just to search for a guy.

Suitor or supper?

Once the female is found the risk increases. They are almost always larger, faster, stronger, and, quite often, hungry. It’s a thin line between being a suitor and being supper, and males must take steps to ensure the female is well fed before any love happens. Some males will use the tap-and-dash method to test her willingness, others take no chances and bring living food, such as a fly, as a nuptial gift. “Here, have dinner — enjoy it,” is a good plan when wooing a female of any species.

Once she accepts the male, it’s still risky. Yes, the male has two pedipalps and that may seem impressive and worth boasting over. But there is a rather gruesome reason for this: in many species, after the nuptials take place, the male must seal off the female to make sure no other male can impregnate her. He does this by snapping off the pedipalp to leave as a plug. When a spider decides to ‘break it off’ with his girl — he means it. Fellas, are you screaming yet?

To answer the question “do spiders scream while mating?” one has to respond, “who wouldn’t?” The reality is that spiders don’t have vocal chords or bellows-like lungs with which to scream. Their sounds come from rubbing legs, drumming the ground and other external means. Thus, the answer is no, but that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t if they could.

For more information on a variety of horticulture topics, visit www.planttalk.org or call (888) 666-3063. Planttalk Colorado is a free service of Colorado State University Cooperative Extension, Denver Botanic Gardens and the Green Industries of Colorado.

Carol O’Meara is with the Colorado State University Cooperative Extension office at the Boulder County Fairgrounds in Longmont. Colorado State University Cooperative Extension, together with Boulder County Parks and Open Space, provides unbiased, research-based information, about consumer and family issues, horticulture, natural resources, agriculture and 4-H youth development. For more information contact Cooperative Extension at the Boulder County Fairgrounds, 9595 Nelson Road, Box B, Longmont, 303-678-6238, or visit www.coopext.colostate.edu/boulder.

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