Are spiders intelligent?

Table of Contents

Amongst the numerous insects that surround us, the spider is a very daring housemate. They find their way to live with humans, whether in a slum or a palace, and building their webs below the king’s throne. Over 3100 known species of orb-weaving spiders have been discovered by scientists, and there could be many more yet unknown to biology. Spiders are interesting creatures that you will also find in gardens, forests, etc., depending on the species. Their presence can be immediately detected when you spot their wheel-shaped webs.


Are spiders intelligent
Are spiders intelligent

For many years, the only thing human cared about spiders was to get rid of their webs as their webs were seen as a symbol of an unkempt and dirty environment. A lot more has been learned about this creature in recent times, and their behavioral pattern is very interesting to study, as you will soon see. Even though most species of spiders do not pose any physical threat to humans, some species are known to be very lethal.   

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Have you ever watched in amazement the rare craftsmanship and swiftness that the spider employs when it weaves a web and catches a prey that is several times bigger than itself? Well, this is only a minor aspect of the level of intelligence this creature possesses and earned it the title as the most dreadful eight-legged creature on the planet. 

Talk about the perfect cast for a villain role in a movie; the spider matches the description of ‘evil.’ Their 4-8 eyes (depending on the species) would send a shiver down the spine of anyone if they weren’t as tiny as they are. No wonder fiction movie makers use them to play the role of invading aliens and monsters.

What could be more gross than drinking a meal instead of eating? That is exactly how spiders feed. When a spider catches its prey in a web, it quickly injects it with venom and digestive enzymes, which immediately breaks it down to a liquid that the spider will feed on. 

In this article, we will help you to discover more facts about the intelligence of this creature and how it is able to tactically fight prey that it is not physically built to fight. 

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Do spiders have a brain?

To answer the question about if spiders are Intelligent or not, we need to first know if they possess a brain. For humans and most other advanced organisms, the brain is the center of their intelligence. Therefore, they are supposed to have a brain if they are Intelligent, aren’t they?

Well, so far, we have seen how intelligent this creature can be as they are very tactical in their hunt for food. How could there be a question about them having a brain or not? Is it because of their size or because of their body structure?

Sincerely, if we were to talk about an organ in the head “brain” like we know it, these tactical hunters do not have any. However, they have another form of information processing organ – which comprises of several neural cells in their cephalothorax, performing the job of a brain. In some cases, their senses, like jumping spiders, extend as far to their legs, giving them powerful jumping ability.

Are spiders self-aware?

Self-awareness from the human perspective is in two ways. Firstly, it has to do with the external environment and secondly, an inward environment.

There is no doubt that such a sophisticated hunter is both conscious about itself and the environment (both on the external environment level though). Most living organisms need some level of consciousness to survive and thrive. The level of consciousness possessed by organisms varies from one to the other. It is a multi-level variable.  

At one level, the consciousness ends at the awareness of its external environment. The spider is aware of their prey while at a different level of consciousness, which they are not capable of having, is the awareness of an inward environment like the humans have. Research has shown that organisms do not need to have an awareness of their inward environment to survive. 

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Can Spiders Think?

The early researchers concluded that the construction of spider webs was a very stereotyped process. They noted that these spiders did not need any experience or study to build perfect webs and that the order by which the different parts of the web were constructed remained unchanged.

This view assumed that these small weavers were like little machines or robots that cannot adapt their preprogrammed behavior to changing conditions, i.e., they can only perform their task in a certain way, and if conditions that go against that process are prevalent, they won’t be able to do anything.

Recent research, however, has shown that these orb weavers are flexible in many ways. 

They adapt web-building behaviors to various stimuli, including web navigation, in terms of silk supply, the size of the open space to be set up, gravity, wind, spider size and weight.

Let’s take a look at some of the points noted in the academic work of William Eberhard, a Smithsonian scholar.

Eberhard noted that the flexibility at which the spiders adapt to changes in their environment raises the question of whether the adjustments came as a result of pre-designed instructions or are implemented automatically, hence are the result of more complex processes such as understanding or comprehension.

Web Surfing: The Spider webs consist of a series of concentric circles originating from the smallest in the center and extending outwards. The rings are divided into sectors with silk lines like pasta slices. When building a web, the spider first frames the non-sticky silk before adding a final adhesive line that extends inwards from the outside of the hub. It is interesting to note that they complete this process blindly: they rely mostly on their sense of touch because the construction is usually done in the dark; hence they cannot see the lines of the web they are building. 

Eberhard noted that the spider strikes where the sticky line’s inner ring will be with one leg like a blind man with a stick. As soon as you touch this line, it immediately turns to add a new line, and then continues to find another. Thus, the inner curve serves as a protective rail, while the spider builds other angles with a sticky line.  

If the spider works gradually inwards from the outer edge of the sphere using the material direction, it avoids the previous adhesive curve’s passage.

Rule-Breakers: Contrary to what a robot will do, spiders are capable of breaking their individual operation rules whenever situations warrant. When building their web, there is a do not cross rule that spiders obey, and Eberhard studied to see if they would disobey the practice at any time. He discovered that they strictly follow the law, but they violated it when they are in a tight corner. His research was focused on two different spider species namely Zosis geniculata and Uloborus diversus, and they only ended up breaking the rule in one out of a thousand decisions they had to make.

It reinforced Eberhard’s doubt about the hypothesis that saw them as preprogrammed creatures, which was initially propagated by early naturalists. The theory only saw them like a mini bot, which only goes through some activities routinely; the spiders break the do not cross rule shows that they can make complex decisions on the go.

According to Eberhard, The results make him believe that these spiders have an ‘understanding’ of the physical location of areas in an area where there are still open areas not covered with sticky lines and how they can only reach, thereby breaking the rules of the crossing.

As Eberhard noted that: at a point, it became less convincing to come up with more complex explanations based on preprogrammed responses than to accept that they possess cognitive ability to confront challenges. According to Eberhard, the biggest problem – and at the same time, the most exciting part of his research was working with an animal whose emotional world is very different from ours.

At some point, Eberhard lent a helping hand to a female spider that was trying to build a web on a windy morning and kept on facing defeat. It was gratifying to know that he was among the few humans to have participated actively in the process of building a spider web. He concluded that even though the spider senses are not as developed as ours, there is no doubt that they possess the ability to make complex decisions as situations present themselves.

From the following points above, there is no doubt that spiders possess a high degree of intelligence, but here are a few more points that should buttress the fact:

●      They’ve got powerful senses: Scientists have been amazed by the high level of sensitivity that spiders possess. Their superpower characteristic is beyond the mere comics portrayed in spiderman movies and other similar comic characters. They possess an incredible hearing and seeing ability that adds up to the magic needed for building their webs. According to a 2016 research, jumping spiders hear perfectly through the hairs’ aid on their legs.  Jamie Lomax, another scientist proved that they could also see as perfectly, via an experiment she conducted using laser light to lure them.

●      Their mimicry of ants

Only a mentally advanced creature can pretend to be another just to evade a predator. A particular species of spider known as Myrmarachne formicaria is a species of spider that can evade predators by pretending that it is an ant. It achieves this by raising two front limbs in disguise as if it were antennae and walking on only six legs. Based on a study carried out at Harvard, it does this within 100-milliseconds. This action happens too quickly for the human eye to see, so the researchers use a high-speed camera to show it. How could they have known that they should mimic an ant can chase the predator away? I guess scientists are still struggling with answering that question.

●      Tune their webs: The art of web building is a very meticulous one, and the spiders take their time to build each string such that the tension and strength are predetermined by the spider. This is because spiders get to make instant decisions just from the vibration of their web. Although these little creatures do not have an ear, the way they tune their web is similar to what a skillful guitarist or players of other stringed musical instruments would do. They adjust their net in a way that it can detect specific vibrations. 

Some researchers from the University of Oxford and Madrid’s university were keen on understanding this phenomenon, so they studied Garden cross spiders. They observed that the spiders adjusted the web’s stiffness and tension so that they can immediately understand the meaning of any impulse on the web. For example, they can distinguish between a failure in the web structure and the catching of prey.

●      Masters in the art of camouflage: When animals that are experts in camouflage are listed, the name that usually comes to mind is Cameleon and some insects. Many people do not know that some orb weaver spiders are masters in the art of disguise. At infancy, this spider will hide in the web and appear to a predator like bird poop. This look will immediately irritate the predator, and it will turn somewhere else to search for another meal. It must have taken intelligence for the spider to identify (external awareness) that there was a potential threat and that it was the right time to disguise under cover of some webs.

● Experts net throwers: Just like a fisherman casts his net over some fishes, the net casting spider casts its net over its prey. It sits back stealthily in ambush, waiting for an insect to come along and boom; when the moment comes, it swiftly rises to the occasion and casts the net over the target before descending on it to paralyze it with some venomous bites.

●      Ability to fire target with Hair: Imagine a creature that can project its hairs like spikes onto a prey or predator; it would need some degree of intelligence to know when to shoot, where to shoot and how to project the shots. The tarantulas are a species of spiders who can throw out their hair like darts at a target. They mostly do this in defense when they feel threatened. However, some tarantula owners have learned the hard way that you do not have to be an enemy for you to suffer from these little darts.

●      Evading by tumbling: When push comes to shove, and the golden wheel spider needs to get away quickly, the eight legs are not as fast as the acrobatic tumble.they will roll their body through a sloped surface so that they can quickly get to safety, it can move at 3.2 feet per second this way. This spider species is mostly found in southern Africa, around the Namib desert, where there are lots of sandy dunes.

●      Water Survival Technique: The diving bell spider can stay for a whole day in water even though it has no gills. It achieves this remarkable feat by building what functions as a scuba suit using webs. This web extract dissolves oxygen from the water and filters out carbon dioxide. Another research carried out on a different species of spider known as the wolf spider shows that they survive in water by moving into a coma; once they get back on dry ground, they once again bounce to life.

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What is the most intelligent spider?

As we have stated earlier, spiders are intelligent creatures that can successfully plot the capture and execution of prey several times bigger than them.

Amongst the thousands of spiders in existence, the Portia Fimbriata( also known as a fringed jumping spider) is noted as the most intelligent species. This spider is capable of making complex decisions and adjusts its hunting strategy as situations unfold. The tiny assassin will successfully plot and take out targets bigger than itself. It uses several techniques to hunt different prey and quickly changes a strategy when it is failing.

It has impressive eyesight similar to most other jumping spiders, and when it spots prey from a distance, it begins to strategize on how to get it. It has different attack strategies but will apply the one that presents the best opportunity to catch the prey.

This spider mostly preys on other species of spiders and beats them to the web orbing game. It will pluck the strings to lure them since spiders respond to vibrations. If one vibration doesn’t produce the desired result, it will switch to plucking at a different vibration and keep going until it finally gets a positive outcome.

At other times it may decide to creep in on the victim while it is on its web. It will sneak patiently in a way that the victim wouldn’t suspect. Sometimes it may spend days doing it. Once it gets close enough, it delivers a lethal bite very promptly.

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Conclusively, as we have discussed, the spider possesses too many characteristics that it would be unfair to question if they were intelligent or not. When next you see an orb-web spider, note that you do not see a preprogrammed robot but one that is capable of making complex and intelligent decisions.


Luis Gillman
Luis Gillman

Hi, I Am Hazel Buckley
Hazel is an animal enthusiast and educator who grew up on a farm which her parents owned in Ingogo, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. The farm was situated right under the Majuba Mountains – the site where the Anglo-Boer War was fought.

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