Spider Disguises Itself as Bird Droppings

It’s the ultimate crappy disguise: The spider Cyclosa ginnaga hides from predators by looking like a pile of bird feces, a new study says.

Study leader I.-Min Tso, an entomologist at National Chung Hsing University in Taiwan, first made the discovery walking through a research station in central Taiwan.

A female Cyclosa ginnaga sits on her “bird dropping” decoration. Photograph by Min-Hui Liu

Tso noticed Jackson Pollack-style splotches of white bird dung, which stood out in stark contrast to the lush green foliage. But when he looked more closely, Tso realized that not all of the blobs were bird droppings: A few were spiders in their webs. (Read about a spider that weaves a mysterious picket fence.)

Tso recognized the spiders as C. ginnaga, a species found in Taiwan, China, Japan, and South Korea.

As the “architects of the spider world,” spiders in the genus Cyclosa are known to create elaborate webs, using their silk to make concentric circles like Saturn’s rings and adding debris such as twigs and leaves that hide young spiders from predators. (Related: “New Spider Weaves Spider-Shaped Web.”)

Now, Tso and colleagues have discovered their defense strategy is even more sophisticated than thought.

Cornell University arachnologist Linda Rayor applauded the study, pointing out that C. ginnaga is not alone in masquerading as bird droppings.

“It’s really not all that uncommon. Several other spiders, like Bolas spiders, also use this disguise,” she said.

Web of Disguises

To find out if the bird dropping-like web confused predators, Tso and colleagues measured the webs that resembled bird feces.

A photo of a spider on a silk decoration and a bird dropping on a leaf, for comparison.
A young C. ginnaga sits on her web (top), which resembles a real bird dropping (bottom) from the same region. Photographs by Min-Hui Liu

At approximately a 0.4 inch (0.6 centimeter) wide, the webs’ shapes and sizes are nearly identical to many of the actual bird droppings seen at the research station, the team discovered. (Also see “Photos: World’s Biggest, Strongest Spider Webs Found.”)

The scientists then measured the contrast in color between the spider—whose back is white—and its web decorations, and found that the differences in color were too small to be distinguished by its wasp predators. This bolstered the hypothesis that the bird droppings were helping to disguise the spider on its web. (See National Geographic’s spider videos.)

Lastly, the team set up an experiment: They caught wild spiders and darkened either the arachnid or its bird-dropping structure and set up video cameras outside to watch the spiders over several days. They also observed spiders that were not manipulated in any way.

A photo of a spider on a silk decoration and a bird dropping on a leaf, for comparison
Another comparison of a web (top) and real bird feces (bottom) . Photographs by Min-Hui Liu

Compared with the white-on-white control spiders, the spiders that had blackened webs or bodies were much more likely to be attacked by predators, according to the study, published March 29 in the journal Scientific Reports.

Even so, Tso and colleagues still can’t say whether predators see these spiders as bird droppings or whether they just blend in with the environment.

Follow Carrie Arnold on Twitter and Google+.

Carrie is a freelance science writer living in Virginia. When she's not writing about cool critters, she's spending time outside, drinking coffee, or knitting. You can visit her website at http://www.carriearnold.com
  • Seve Coates

    Makes a nice ‘contrast’ to Peppered moths for future lessons on natural selection, thanks!

  • Steve Coates


  • Steve Hopkins

    Another fascinating lesson in natural disguise…..

  • jesse baker

    “…whether predators see these spiders as bird droppings…”

    If the predators are wasps, I doubt they really “see” them as anything in particular. We “see” spiders or bird doo because our minds categorize such things as discrete objects in an explicit way–a task I suspect is computationally too much for the wasp’s nervous system.

    But the main thing is the camouflaged spider stimulus doesn’t trigger the wasp’s predatory behavior sequence. I wouldn’t notice them either, if not looking for them.

  • AfCAthaCA

    One can never poo-poo on nature’s ideas …

  • Halima

    Thank you National Geographic for tireless efforts at enlightening the world.this discovery noted about these group of spiders,is it an old behaviour noticed now or a recent change on the side of the spiders.if recent,it points to a high level of intelligence on the part of the insects,their capacity to even think to mimic something as unattractive as bird droppings is unreal.GOD is truly GREAT.

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