Spiders: How Smart Are They (And Are They Self-Aware?)


spider with woven web in house

If you’ve ever been close enough to a spider web to study it, you may be amazed by the intricate patterns and shape of the silky web. Could a creature driven by instinct alone create such a fantastic masterpiece? Just how smart are spiders?

Despite their small size, spiders are very intelligent with the tools given to them. Jumping spiders have been known to take a circuitous route to their prey to surprise them, while black widows know the size and shape of their prey and remember the location in their web hours later.

Spiders may not have split the atom or sent satellites into space, but they have done marvelous work with the tools nature gave them. Buckle up and put on your philosopher’s hat as we discuss how smart spiders are and if they’re sentient. 

What Does It Mean To Be Intelligent And Self-Aware?

The big question: are spiders intelligent? Do they understand their place in the universe? Or are they mindless creatures driven by instinct to do what they do?

The question of whether or not animals are intelligent and/or sentient has been discussed in the scientific community for centuries. From Aristotle to Darwin, philosophers and scientists want to know: are animals self-aware? Are they cognitive? Are they intelligent?

The concept that a lot of people don’t fully grasp is the scope of intelligence. We think that we are the most intelligent creatures on the planet because we have all this technology and cool stuff like cell phones and Bluetooth. 

But, intelligence isn’t necessarily based on how much technology we have. It’s about using the tools available to you intelligently. For example, if we had eight legs and were the size of a quarter, we couldn’t possibly have built things like the golden gate bridge or engineered an aqueduct system, no matter how intelligent we were. 

There would be no need – we’re the size of a quarter! Instead, think of spiders on a smaller scale, where a sapling is the same size as a skyscraper is to us. Their world is small, and their intelligence must be looked at on a smaller scale.

In terms of being self-aware, this is where we need to put on our philosopher’s cap. There are plenty of descriptions of self-awareness, each with its own special meaning. 

To boil it down, a 2005 paper from the University of Rochester describes self-awareness as our ability to identify ourselves as unique, understanding our own physical characteristics, our current situation relative to the rest of the world, our goals, intentions, and abilities.

To put it simply, to be self-aware is to understand that there are things like you – other humans – but that you are different than them.

Are Spiders Intelligent?

Spider in a dark corner of the country house

A lot of us won’t be thrilled to learn that, yes, spiders are intelligent. In fact, they’re pretty dang smart in their small little worlds. Some scientists believe they have every capability to continue evolving, getting smarter and smarter with every life experience.

One of the spiders that have been studied more than most are jumping spiders. They’ve been studied for their physical ability to jump, even paving the way for robotics teams to mimic their athleticism. They’ve also been studied for their intelligence.

Jumping Spiders Outsmart Their Prey

Most spiders have poor vision, despite their multitude of eyeballs. Instead, they rely on vibrations to understand their environment. 

Jumping spiders have the best vision of the arachnid community. Two huge forward-facing eyes pair with three sets of smaller eyes to give them nearly 360-degree vision. Jumping spiders can also see color the same way that humans can and can even see into the ultraviolet spectrum.

These expert hunters use a few clever tactics to increase their chance of success while looking for food.

When preying on web-building spiders, jumping spiders will plan out a route to get to their prey that involves stealth. Instead of directly approaching prey, they will take a roundabout route that puts them above their target, according to a 2017 study.

Using a silk strand from above, they lower themselves to the web weaver’s lair and pounce, surprising their prey. This route planning capability suggests a higher intelligence in jumping spiders, not just primal-driven instinct.

In Africa, jumping spiders belonging to the Portia family use tricks to outsmart their prey. They will approach a web-building spider and pluck at the web in a very specific way.

In fact, it’s so specified that scientists think jumping spiders can differentiate between different prey, understanding that there are different species of spiders.

If the prey spider is smaller than the jumping spider, it will strongly pluck the web, indicating a decent-size catch such as a large fly or moth. The smaller web-building spider will rush out to try to subdue the caught prey immediately, running right into the waiting fangs of the jumping spider.

If the prey spider is larger than the jumping spider, it will instead pluck the web lightly, as if something small were caught like a fruit fly. This will entice the spider to come out and investigate rather than rushing over. Once the spider is close enough, the jumping spider pounces and subdues the spider with its venom.

Pretty smart, right?

If you’d like, you can learn more about the 7 spider species that can jump here.

Black Widows Remember Their Prey

Black Widow Spider, Latrodectus, with her red hour glass showing on her tummy. She is hanging on an almost invisible web.

Black widows are one of those spiders that we all hear about but rarely see. The reason for this is they seldom inhabit the same spaces as humans. They live in the wild, and they like it that way (which is fine with us).

Black widows, along with other web-building spiders, use the sit-and-wait method to capture prey. Once prey is caught in their sticky silk, they consume it in a rather gruesome fashion.

Until recently, spiders that spun webs were considered more primitive than spiders that would actively hunt. However, an assistant professor of biological sciences disagrees, according to the University of Wisconsin.

Experiments were performed that tested just how good the memory of these web-building spiders was. They allowed the spiders to get acclimated to a web that contained captured prey. Then, the spiders were moved to a different web with no food.

The spiders were observed searching for the prey that was on their previous web, pulling at threads, and assessing the vibration signals. Even when live prey was inserted elsewhere on the web, the spiders continued to search for their previously-caught prey.

This indicates that spiders do, in fact, have memories, and even when taken out of the current situation, they will remember where food was previously located.

Other web-building spiders have been observed performing in the same manner. In fact, once the prey is caught, spiders will reconstruct that area of their web to be better suited for catching prey. They pull the threads especially tight in these areas, which leads to a higher success rate in catching prey.

This not only indicates intelligence in spiders but also that they can learn from their experiences and remember them.

If you’re interested, you can learn more about the other spider species that don’t spin webs here.

Spiders Can Be Trained Similar To Dogs

Remember the dog that learned to drool every time it heard a bell ring? If you don’t, you can brush up on your psychology history.

Spiders can be trained in the same way, and if spiders were simple-minded, instinct-driven animals, it would be hard to teach them a conditioned behavior.

Basically, scientists came up with this plan to teach spiders to associate food with the scent of vanilla. But before we start, it’s important to note that spiders don’t always eat other spiders or bugs. If live prey isn’t available, they will consume nectar. Yep, that’s right; spiders are pollinators!

study performed in 2008 tested spiders that were conditioned to associate nectar with the scent of vanilla and spiders that were not. When given the chance, conditioned spiders found their nectar significantly faster than the unconditioned spiders.

What this means is, spiders can learn. Despite being small and having brains the size of a poppy seed, spiders can learn things!

Other Things That Show Signs Of Spider Smarts

We’re borderline bragging at this point…but spiders are pretty smart, right? They can learn stuff, remember stuff, and understand the importance of stealth and surprise.

What are some other ways spiders prove their intelligence?

Adaptation: Spiders that are in a niche environment and only eat certain foods such as ants or termites will change their diet to a less nutrient-rich meal like flies if they are raised on this diet.

Small Size Does Not Equal Small Intelligence: When building webs, baby orb-weaving spiders are just as proficient as their mothers at building webs.

Vibrations: Spiders are smart enough to differentiate between the vibrations in their web from caught prey or from an approaching male spider coming to court. A spider will base their reaction depending on what the vibrations tell them: attack or enter into courtship mode.

Rebuilding Webs: If you’ve ever hiked in the wood, you’ve probably gotten a face-full of spider webs at one point or another. When spiders reconstruct their webs, they actually do it off of memory, often constructing webs with the exact same distance between spirals, and angles of the spirals, as previous webs.

Are Spiders Self-Aware? Well, Yes

Western Spotted Orb Weaver - (Neoscona oaxacensis) Spider in center of web

We’ve dug into the intelligence of spiders, but what about self-awareness? Do spiders know they are spiders, or do they think everything is a spider and there’s no uniqueness in the world?

It raises a lot of cringy questions…

There’s still a small war raging in the scientific community concerning animal consciousness and self-awareness. After all, how do you prove something is self-aware? How can we prove that something is aware of its own mortality or place in the universe?

It’s tough, but we can use clues to figure out if spiders (and other animals) are self-aware. One spider, in particular, part of the genus Cyclosa, is paving the way for spiders all over the world.

This spider was recently discovered in the Peruvian Amazon and is thought to be a member of the orb-weaver spiders. There is plenty of documentation of orb-weaver spiders placing debris, leaves, and even dead prey carcasses in their web to distract predators. They’re nicknamed ‘trash orbweavers.’

However, these newly discovered spiders are building large replicas of themselves in their webs, complete with eight legs, head, and abdomen!

So, how does a spider construct such an effigy of itself? Well, it has to know what it looks like, and it has to be aware of its uniqueness in comparison to other spiders. It sounds kind of like self-awareness…

These Cyclosa spiders are so smart that they build their replica decoys on a larger scale than themselves. Much larger. And as the spider grows, so does its decoy. The decoys are used to deter smaller predators, who might decide the spider their hunting is too big a meal to eat. 

Whether or not this proves spiders are self-aware is still up for debate. Other spiders do not seem to possess such an obvious sense of self-awareness, but more subtle clues may need to be uncovered before we close the book on the topic.

Do Spiders Remember Your Face?

Phew, take a deep breath. Now that we’ve waded out of that philosophical ocean let’s move on to a lighter topic.

If you see a spider, make eye contact with one of its eight eyes, will it remember your face? Probably not. Spiders have poor eyesight, except for the jumping spider, and even then, their eyesight only extends up to a couple of feet.

With that being said, spiders are quick learners. If they see you and you do nothing to it, it will go about its business and associate you with neutrality. However, if you try to smash it and miss it, the next time a spider sees a human, it will remember that and act accordingly.

Spiders may even be able to differentiate you from other humans by the color of your clothes since spiders can see the same colors as humans. This type of learned behavior is unusual in a spider since they do not typically live long enough to learn these things.

That’s A Wrap!

You can go ahead and remove your philosopher’s cap now. As you can see, spiders are a lot more interesting than you might have thought! The next time you see a spider, you might reconsider your notion to wave them off as insignificant creatures driven by instinct alone. 

They’re crafty, intelligent, and agile creatures that have done amazing work with the equipment given to them by nature.

From remembering their prey to making larger-than-life replicas of themselves, spiders have proven they are more than just instinct-driven creatures. They’re intelligent! Some even might say self-aware…

If you need to repel spiders, make sure to take a look at our piece on the scents that spiders hate!

References

Colin, A., & Trestman, M. (2020). Animal Consciousness. In Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Edward N. Zalta ed.). https://plato.stanford.edu/cgi-bin/encyclopedia/archinfo.cgi?entry=consciousness-animal

Japyassu, h. F., & Laland, K. N. (2017). Extended Spider Cognition. Anim Cogn, 20, 375-395. https://cogs.sitehost.iu.edu/spackled/2017readings/Japyassu_2017_Extended_spider_cognition.pdf

Schubert, L. (2005). Some Knowledge Representation and Reasoning Requirements for Self-Awareness. University of Rochester. https://www.aaai.org/Papers/Symposia/Spring/2005/SS-05-04/SS05-04-017.pdf

Tseng, L., & Tso, I.-M. (2009). A risky defense by a spider using conspicuous decoys resembling itself in appearance. Animal Behavior, 1-7. https://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.424.5120&rep=rep1&type=pdf

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