From predatory females who only stop hunting long enough to grudgingly reproduce (and then find a meal in their hapless mate) to males driven for unknown reasons to amputate their own sex organs, spiders are the top contenders for having nature’s most terrifying mating rituals.
Danger lurks everywhere and often; for the smaller male spider, getting lucky might be the unluckiest move he ever makes.
Performing the dance of love
The male Australian peacock spider boasts a dazzling repertoire of dance steps and gestures designed to promote contact between the sexes.
His exotic moves are complemented by flamboyant coloration and flaps on his back that can be raised for show, much like a peacock’s tail. But despite his extravagant displays of affection, many a male ends up as an easy meal for the always-hungry female.
Spiders are efficient predators
A spider can easily go from drowsy to lethal in a split second. It sits in its web for hours at a stretch without moving, but as soon as prey comes within reach, the spider will attack it with venomous bites and immobilizing silk.
Just like humans, some male spiders have to pay for sex.
In order to entice a female to mate, a male ordinary nursery web spider must offer the object of his affection a gift, in the form of freshly caught prey cocooned in silk. But some males attempt to beat the system by substituting seeds and other indigestible plant parts in the gift wrap. It’s a risky move: If the female recognizes the gift as a sham, she will interrupt the mating process, and so the deceiving spider is less likely to pass his genes on to the next generation — proving the adage that cheaters never win.
Most spider species have eight eyes, giving them excellent vision. Jumping spiders have particularly well-developed vision, which enables them to accurately gauge the distance to their prey.Special hairs sharpen senses
A spider’s body and legs are covered with sensory hairs that can detect touch, vibration and air currents. Even in the dark, some spiders can make out the location of a flying insect — and jump up to catch it in midair.
Fangs subdue and kill prey
Spiders tranquilize and then kill their prey by injecting venom into the victim with their two needle-shaped fangs. Spiders can only consume liquid food, so the prey must first be digested outside the body by enzymes that spiders spit into the victim.
Virtually all spiders have three sets of spinnerets, and many species can produce as many as seven different types of silk. This silk is used to create the spider’s web and to trap prey once it has landed in the web. Some spider webs also give off phero-mones, which can attract the opposite sex.
Wrapped up in the moment
In some spider species, the male first spins a web, pinning the female to its surface before climbing on top and mating from above by inserting his palpi in her genital opening. Oddly enough, the female seems to be a willing participant in this peculiar game, as immediately after the two finish mating she is able to disentangle herself from her mate’s silken trap without too much effort.
Among Araneus pallidus spiders (a type of garden spider), the male’s death is just part of his sex life. While mating, both spiders hang upside down from a thread of silk that the male has attached to the female’s web. As she hangs in this position, she is more docile than usual but is still in a position to pounce. In some cases, she bites him to death and starts to eat him — even as his body continues mating. And sometimes, she eats him before he’s able to mate at all.
Hanging on for dear life
For some species, mating is so risky that the male must keep an iron grip on the female.
When tarantulas mate, the male places himself beneath the female with his back directly under her long fangs. Death could easily result, so in many species, the male is equipped with special hooks on his front pair of legs, which he uses to hold on to the female’s fangs — like two fencers locking their swords. Afterward the male usually walks away, although sometimes he’ll stick around for another go. Unlike many other spider species, the female rarely injures or eats the male.
The vast majority of spiders typically begin their lives encapsulated with a large number of siblings in an egg case, which is made by the female in order to protect her eggs. The case may be so strong that the spiderlings can’t puncture it without their mother’s help.
They carry their eggs and spiderlings
Many female wolf spiders carry around both the egg case and newly hatched spiders. The case is fixed to her special spinneret so that she can easily hunt; when the case bursts, the young crawl onto their mother’s back to stay for a few days until they are ready to tackle the world on their own.
Some spiders regurgitate a mixture of half-digested food and their own broken-down intestines for their young. Several species go even further, with the spiderlings actually eating their mother in a process called matriphagy — the ultimate maternal sacrifice.
They lay special eggs for food
Some female spiders feed their young by laying special eggs intended solely for consumption by the babies.
The male autumn spider must wait for the perfect moment to make his move on the much stronger female. He sits patiently at the edge of her web, not daring to do so much as twitch until she captures a sufficiently large specimen of prey to keep her occupied while he gets down to business — otherwise, she might just as easily turn her deadly fangs on him.
Leaving a lasting impression
The Harpactea sadistica spider is aptly named: First, the male bites the female, immobilizing her. Then, despite the fact that the female has a genital organ, he pierces her abdomen with his specialized palpi, which are equipped with both hooks and pointed needles, and injects his sperm right next to her ovaries. He then repeats the process, so that after mating the female is left with two rows of around six holes in her midsection.
Water spiders live nearly their entire lives underwater and even mate in special air bubbles called diving bells.
Before mating, the male water spider first fills his palpi with sperm. He then leaves his diving bell — an air-filled bubble that serves as home — in search of a female. After an underwater dance nearby, mating takes place in the female’s diving bell, with the male leaving his abdomen outside. Male water spiders are usually larger than females; this is one of the few spider species in which the male dares to stay with the female until she has laid her eggs. Some males even turn the tables and eat their mates.
Among most spiders, the female is larger than the male — in some species females are up to 10 times larger than males. Large females can lay more eggs than smaller ones, but the reason for the males’ size is less clear. Perhaps the advantage is that smaller males sexually mature at the same rate as their female counterparts, increasing their chances of being in sync when it’s time to mate. Or, since smaller males have to travel far in their quest for females, being small may make this easier. Finally, small males are easy to overlook and thus may sneak around undetected (and uneaten) in females webs.
Signaling the call to mate
Male spiders, particularly those with good vision, like wolf and jumping spiders, often use signals that can be seen and heard from a distance by females. Their palpi and legs can be moved in specific patterns and rhythms, something like the flag signals once used by military outfits. Among several species, the males signal to females and rivals using sounds that are produced when the male pounds his body, legs or palpi against the surface of the ground or vibrates his entire body.
Surrendering his body
Immediately before Tidarren genus males become sexually mature, they perform a special ritual in which they amputate one palpus by twisting it off while it is stuck in a tiny web they have made. The reason for this is not completely clear, since it reduces the males chances of mating. However, males with one palpus are faster and have better endurance than their two-palped counterparts. The other palpus is often twisted off during mating and may remain in the female for hours, perhaps functioning as a type of chastity belt that prevents other males from mating with her.
Other deadly sex lives
It’s not just male spiders that dance with death when mating — the females of several species may kill the males during or right after the deed.
Scorpion gives a prick of passion
Although the male scorpion holds the female’s claws like a vise during mating, she can still sting him if he sticks around too long afterward. As a precaution, the male may prick the female with his venomous stinger to limit her fighting spirit.
Praying mantises lose their heads
If a female mantis sees her mate while they are mating, or if they are otherwise interrupted, she will eat him. First, she’ll take his head, after which his body will continue to mate.
Octopus turns into a sexual cannibal
In 2008 a sexually aroused female Octopus cyanea was observed feasting on her partner: They mated 12 times over a period of 316 hours, but on the 13th time, she suffocated him and then spent the next two days eating his remains.