Spiders (order Araneae) are air-breathing arthropods that have eight legs, and chelicerae with fangs that inject venom. They are the largest order of arachnids and rank seventh in total species diversity among all other groups of organisms. Spiders are found worldwide on every continent except for Antarctica, and have become established in nearly every habitat with the exception of air and sea colonization.
As of 2008, approximately 40,000 spider species, and 109 families have been recorded by taxonomists; however, there has been confusion within the scientific community as to how all these families should be classified, as evidenced by the over 20 different classifications that have been proposed since 1900.
Spiders use a wide range of strategies to capture prey: trapping it in sticky webs, lassoing it with sticky bolas, mimicking the prey to avoid detection, or running it down. Most detect prey mainly by sensing vibrations, but the active hunters have acute vision, and hunters of the genus Portia show signs of intelligence in their choice of tactics and ability to develop new ones. Spiders’ guts are too narrow to take solids, and they liquidize their food by flooding it with digestive enzymes and grinding it with the bases of their pedipalps, as they do not have true jaws.
Male spiders identify themselves by a variety of complex courtship rituals to avoid being eaten by the females. Males of most species survive a few matings, limited mainly by their short life spans. Females weave silk egg-cases, each of which may contain hundreds of eggs. Females of many species care for their young, for example by carrying them around or by sharing food with them. A minority of species are social, building communal webs that may house anywhere from a few to 50,000 individuals. Social behavior ranges from precarious toleration, as in the aggressive widow spiders, to co-operative hunting and food-sharing. Although most spiders live for at most two years, tarantulas and other mygalomorph spiders can live up to 25 years in captivity.
While the venom of a few species is dangerous to humans, scientists are now researching the use of spider venom in medicine and as non-polluting pesticides. Spider silk provides a combination of lightness, strength and elasticity that is superior to that of synthetic materials, and spider silk genes have been inserted into mammals and plants to see if these can be used as silk factories. As a result of their wide range of behaviors, spiders have become common symbols in art and mythology symbolizing various combinations of patience, cruelty and creative powers.
Females lay up to 3,000 eggs in one or more silk egg sacs, which maintain a fairly constant humidity level In some species the females die afterwards, but females of other species protect the sacs by attaching them to their webs, hiding them in nests, carrying them in the chelicerae or attaching them to the spinnerets and dragging them along.
Baby spiders pass all their larval stages inside the egg and hatch as spiderlings, very small and sexually immature but similar in shape to adults. Some spiders care for their young, for example a wolf spider’s brood cling to rough bristles on the mother’s back, and females of some species respond to the “begging” behavior of their young by giving them their prey, provided it is no longer struggling, or even regurgitate food.
Like other arthropods, spiders have to molt to grow as their cuticle (“skin”) cannot stretch. In some species males mate with newly molted females, which are too weak to be dangerous to the males. Most spiders live for only one to two years, although some tarantulas can live in captivity for over 20 years.
Most spiders will only bite humans in self-defense, and few produce worse effects than a mosquito bite or bee-sting. Most of those with medically serious bites, such as recluse spiders and widow spiders, are shy and bite only when they feel threatened, although this can easily arise by accident. Funnel web spiders’ defensive tactics are aggressive and their venom, although they rarely inject much, has resulted in 13 known human deaths. On the other hand the Brazilian wandering spider requires very little provocation.
There were about 100 reliably reported deaths from spider bites in the 20th century, but about 1,500 from jellyfish stings. Many alleged cases of spider bites may represent incorrect diagnoses, which would make it more difficult to check the effectiveness of treatments for genuine bites.