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Male Black Widow Spiders “Twerk” to Avoid Being Eaten by Females

Forget Miley Cyrus: When it comes to twerking, spiders can save their lives by shaking their booties, a new study says. Scientists have found that male black widows move their bodies in a certain way to let females know of their presence—and avoid becoming their next meal. (Also see “Surprise! Male Spiders Eat Females, Too.”)...

Forget Miley Cyrus: When it comes to twerking, spiders can save their lives by shaking their booties, a new study says.

Scientists have found that male black widows move their bodies in a certain way to let females know of their presence—and avoid becoming their next meal. (Also see “Surprise! Male Spiders Eat Females, Too.”)

A male black widow (right) must tread carefully to avoid being eaten by the bigger female. Photograph by Sean McCann

The male, “upon entering a female’s web, will pause and vibrate its abdomen up and down, keeping the rest of its body quite still,” said Samantha Vibert, an entomologist at Simon Fraser University in Canada, who led the study published January 16 in the journal Frontiers in Zoology.

Female black widow spiders are not the friendliest mates, even according to spider standards: They will pretty much eat anything moving on their web, prey or spider. So it pays to clearly identify yourself as a mate, not a morsel.

Males do this by jerking the female’s web, transmitting friendly vibrations that give the female a simple message: “Please don’t eat me! I’m here to mate.” (Read about 7 other animals that use vibrations to communicate.)

This is a smart move, since the female’s web “functions as an extension of the spider’s exquisitely tuned sensory system, allowing her to very quickly detect and respond to prey coming into contact with her silk,” said study co-author Catherine Scott, also at Simon Fraser.

So by making movements on the web that are unlike those of a fly or cricket, the male has figured out a lifesaving communication strategy.

Good Vibrations

In the lab, researchers recorded vibrations made by black widow males, hobo spider males, and common prey species.

The vibrations of the male black widows were played back to female black widows, vibrations of the male hobo spiders were played back to female hobos, and both species’ females were exposed to vibrations from prey. The team observed the females’ reactions throughout the experiments.

For hobo spiders, no twerk was detected and their vibes did not differ much from those of prey. This is likely due to the fact that, unlike black widow males, which are much smaller than their females, male hobo spiders are about the same size as females and usually don’t get the cannibal treatment.

However, “the vibrations produced by courting black widow males were very different from those produced by prey,” explained Vibert. “They were long-lasting and of very low amplitude, just like a constant humming,” she said.

Their results suggest that black widow males sent just the right vibrations to black widow females to keep them docile. (See “Male Spiders Give ‘Back Rubs’ to Seduce Their Mates.”)

The vibrations of the male black widows and prey species were then played back to female black widows, and the team observed the females’ reactions.
Quiet vibrations, like those produced by the male’s subtle twerks, did not trigger a predatory response, but when researchers turned up the volume of the vibrations made by the black widow males, the female black widows attacked, Vibert said.
This may explain why the male spiders keep their twerking at a low key: “We speculate the males ‘twerk’ to avoid triggering a female’s predatory instinct, or even to turn it off,” Vibert said, though further confirmation is needed.

Talk about a labor of love.

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Karl Gruber
I am a scientist with a Master of Science from the department of Ecology, Evolution and Behaviour at the University of Minnesota, and a versatile science communicator. Reviewing the primary literature and writing a clear and concise articles is an ability now embedded in me, as I have been doing this since I started working in the research realm, more than 10 years ago. I am comfortable working with strict deadlines and working under pressure. I have experience writing for various audiences, as seen from my articles from National Geographic, Science Now, New Scientist and The Munich Eye, aimed at lay audiences. Then my articles from Lab Times, The Lancet, GEN, and The Pain Research Forum, provide good examples of work aimed at more educated audiences. From these writing experiences you can see I have a strong commitment to meet deadlines and a great capacity to understand complex topics and produce clean, high-quality articles. I have also served as a reviewer for PLoS One and Journal of Heredity, and I currently work as a freelance Academic Editor for Cactus Communications, where I edit articles aimed at peer reviewed journals. I also have experience writing research grants and peer reviewed papers, since my time as a Bachelor student. Finally, I currently work (pro bono) as the Science and Technology Editor for The Munich Eye, where I am in charge of the content of this section. In this role, I identify relevant articles from the primary literature, assign articles and edit the work of freelance writers and publish their work on a daily basis at our online presence at For the print edition, besides the content, I also manage the outline of the articles that go into print. TME is currently on hold due to re-structuring.