Pharyngula

Spider Kama Sutra

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I’ve been savoring this lovely used book I picked up a little while ago, The Book of Spiders and Scorpions by Rod Preston-Mafham, and am appreciating more than the fact that it is full of beautiful photography of spiders and lots of general information on arachnid behavior and physiology; it’s also true that spiders are awfully sexy beasts. They are playful and romantic and kinky and enthusiastic and ferocious and savage and exotic, and really know how to have a good time. I thought I’d share a few of the pretty pictures and details of the arachnid sex life with the readers of Pharyngula—so if you’re mature enough to handle it, exuberant enough to enjoy reading about interesting animals doing fun things, and aren’t too squicked out at the idea of closeups of spider genitalia, read on.

First, a little anatomy, and we’ll start with the female. Here is the underside of a generic spider.

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The detail we’re concerned with is the epigyne; that is the entrance to the female reproductive tract, and it’s in an unsurprising place, the underside of the belly. Over to the right I’ve included a nice gynecological closeup of the epigyne of Pholcus phalangioides. Isn’t it pretty? Epigynes may vary greatly from species to species, consisting of everything from a simple pit to an elaborate plate with bumps and hooks and latches. One mechanism of ensuring species fidelity is to evolve elaborate intromittent organs and complementary vulvae that fit together in a lock-and-key mechanism.

Another feature of the diagram above and an important character for the chelicerates are the mouthparts. The jaw is labeled, with its fangs and crushing/chomping parts, and next to the jaw is unlabeled, segment appendage, the palps. The palps are sensory and manipulatory mouthparts that have another important function—they are the male sex organ. Male spiders don’t have penises, and although they do have reproductive organs in the usual abdominal place, they’ve secondarily modify their mouthparts to do the actual work of mating.

Here, for instance, is a male of the genus Peucetia. The paired green slabs hanging down from his face are the jaws, while the pair of jointed, bristly structures on either side with complicated twisty bits at the end are his palps, which he is probably fantasizing about introducing into the epigyne of a female.

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Going courting for a male takes a little preparation. Those palps are nowhere near his reproductive tract, so what he has to do is spin a tiny scrap of web and ejaculate a bit of semen onto it; he then dips his palps into it and fills a hollow channel in them. That’s right, the prelude to spider mating is for the male to charge his face up with sperm. This can actually take quite a while, a half hour to several hours, so it’s an important part of the process.

Another important and dangerous step is flagging down a willing female. Spiders often have elaborate courtship rituals, with fancy dancing, wig-wagging palps, and fragrant pheromones, all working to convince the female, who is a ferocious predator, that the male is friendly and conspecific and wouldn’t she like a little wink-wink-nudge-nudge instead of or before eating him? I can sympathize. I remember when I first asked my wife-to-be out on a date in high school, and I was as nervous as if there were a worry that she might sink her fangs into my skull, inject my cranium with digestive enzymes, and slurp my brains out like a tasty oatmeal milkshake. With spiders, they might really do that.

Once the female gives the all clear, what next? Here are some suggestions from The Joy of Spider Sex, a book that doesn’t exist but should.

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Here our happy male is going for the gusto and directly pressing his palps against the epigyne, inserting one after the other and squirting their contents into the happy orange lady. This is effective, but note one awkward characteristic of the position: the male is directly beneath the females jaws. This is also the characteristic position for her meals, and one thing you do not want to do while mating with a spider is remind her of dinner.

Now this is not a problem in many species, in which the female may plan on dining on her paramour afterwards, and in some species, the male will actually spontaneously expire upon completion of the act. Males who plan on having sex more than once, though, may prefer the next position.

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Here the male is on top, away from those fearsome jaws, and is curling around her side to reach the epigyne with his long and agile phallic palps. This is much, much safer.

This next position requires some long term evolutionary preparation.

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Some spider species have an unusually elaborate cephalothorax; their back is festooned with elaborate cuticular protrusions and bumps and hooks and bristles. In these cases, the female clamps onto some of these bumps, like the pommel of a saddle, and may be distracted or entertained…it’s like he has evolved a collection of sex toys on his back to keep her happy while he diddles her backside.

I know, you don’t want diagrams, you want to see the real thing. Here’s a pair of Evarcha falcata gettin’ wild. Look at the expression on her face—you know she’s loving this.

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Spiders can get a bit kinky, too. This species, Xysticus cristatus, has a solution to the problem of hungry ladies: they practice Japanese rope bondage. The male has wrapped the female in webbing to keep her under control while he dives under her belly to do the deed.

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Speaking of arachnid mating and sex toys and bondage (clever segue, eh?), the only sex shop proprietress nicknamed after an arthropod that I know, flea of the most excellent weblog One Good Thing, is having a spot of financial difficulty, as I learned on Bitch, Ph.D.. You can help out by browsing their online store, the Honeysuckle Shop, and picking up a few items for your courtship rituals. Despite being named for an arthropod, I notice that she seems to be marketing to an exclusively mammalian clientele (I wonder what a spider sex shop would be like?*), but since I suspect almost all of the readers of Pharyngula are probably mammals, too, it might work out. Anyway, take a look. Think like a horny spider.

*I’m thinking they’d be stocked with palp sharpeners, epigyne wrenches, E-Z-Fast sperm loaders, exotic pheromone waxes, self-adhesive cephalothorax twiddlers, and for the more timid males, a line of tranq rifles.

Comments

  1. #1 CousinoMacul
    March 2, 2006

    “That’s right, the prelude to spider mating is for the male to charge his face up with sperm.”

    Hey, I saw that movie! Ben Stiller and Cameron Diaz as the spider couple. 😀

  2. #2 Frito
    March 2, 2006

    And to think that most people want nothing more from spiders than for them to stay as far away from them, and perhaps to smash them if they don’t.

    Horney little buggers, though.

  3. #3 fwiffo
    March 2, 2006

    The risks to the male in at least a few species of spider may be somewhat overstated (as they are for praying mantids). In captivity (where a lot of this kind of observation takes place), a male may lack a means of escape. In the wild, even a Black Widow male is likely to get away.

    I’ve got some more lovely pictures, including mating Haplopelma lividum on my web site:
    http://www.bighairyspiders.com/

  4. #4 HP
    March 2, 2006

    I could swear I saw/read/heard something about a spider species that was so sexually dimorphic that the male was able to crawl around on the female’s abdomen essentially unnoticed, almost like a parasite. (“Like an aphid on an orange” is the phrase I keep thinking.) Apparently, the males went undiscovered for years, and there was speculation that the spider reproduced asexually. Does that ring a bell, or did I imagine it?

    Googling, the closest I could come up with was the Australian Golden Orb-Weaving Spider, which is extremely dimorphic, but not that dimorphic. (Remember back in the 70s when Dudley Moore and Susan Anton used to appear on TV together all the time? God, I’m old.)

  5. #5 ColinB
    March 2, 2006

    That’s right, the prelude to spider mating is for the male to charge his face up with sperm.

    Makes me think of Monty Python’s classic song – “Sit of my face, and tell me that you love me.”

    Seriously though, that Intelligent Designer must have been one sick deity to come up with this level of debasement. Shame on you, FSM! ;v)

  6. #6 Arun
    March 2, 2006

    “They are playful and romantic and kinky and enthusiastic and ferocious and savage and exotic.”

    Is not ascribing these attributes to arachnids akin to the action of Dennett’s HADD (hyperactive agent detection device)?

    Do you mean to say that the same actions in humans would be playful, romantic, etc.?

  7. #7 Troutnut
    March 2, 2006

    I’m a big fan of crawly things, and I’ve spent a remarkable amount of time looking at mayfly genitals under a microscope, but I’ve got to stop short of calling spiders “sexy.” I would say they’re hideous but in a cool way, like a really good monster in a movie. It still won’t steal the show from the leading lady, but it has its charm.

  8. #8 Gray Lensman
    March 2, 2006

    What a great alternative to looking at photos of Republicans destroying the country!

    I recommend taking a trip to Saratoga TX, in the Big Thicket just north of Beaumont. Take your camera; there are spiders and insects on every bush. The Thicket is a very special place.

  9. #9 Lixivium
    March 2, 2006

    Reminds me of another song:


    All our lives have to die of that there’s no help
    my favorite way to end them
    is the orb-weaver spider whose pedipalp
    enters the female pudendum


    then dies on the spot his corpse there still stuck
    left for his rivals to curse at
    he would rather die than not get to f—
    personally I reckon it’s worth it

    from “Everyone else has had more sex than me” by TISM

  10. #10 Patrick
    March 2, 2006

    Pretty amazing. I have a male tarantula (Chromatopelma cyaneopubescens) that I expect to reach maturity after his next moult, i’ve been thinking about breeding him. T’s use the first position. They special tibial hooks on their first set uf legs that they use to push up on the females jaws, thus avoiding becoming the after sex snack. T’s will breed several times with the same female, it’s that safe.

  11. #11 Stephanie
    March 2, 2006

    Spiders, and sex, and spider sex toys, with pictures? PZ, you just made my day!

  12. #12 Great White Wonder
    March 2, 2006

    Here’s a pair of Evarcha falcata gettin’ wild. Look at the expression on her faceyou know she’s loving this.

    ROTFLMAO!!!!!!

    She’s got the same expression on her face that my cat gets when the vet takes her temperature.

  13. #13 flea
    March 2, 2006

    Thank you for the mention, especially in one of my all-time favorite posts.

    I suppose this is an appropriate time to mention the discount we’re having for Arachnid-Americans: 50% off all Japanese rope bondage gear.

  14. #14 The Other Jim Hargrove
    March 2, 2006

    For a different look at Phlocus phalangiodes check out my web site. I am particularly fond of the one of the spider wrapping up a ladybug.

  15. #15 Amanda
    March 2, 2006

    My former advisor wrote a book called Remarkable Shrimps that contains what might be considered a shrimp Kama Sutra. Our lab was also full of time-laps videos of “shrimp porn”

  16. #16 garth
    March 2, 2006

    nice. I collect tarantulas as well, and as was stated above, the risk to males is usually overstated. some research (wish I could find a link…) suggests that the female tarantula actually accedes to mating, like most other spiders, and the tibial hooks may actually be useless remnants of evolution. neat!

    The gory shots of males being devoured are usually set ups. Tarantulas get a bum rap….they must be sick when they see some creep with a camera getting near their cage…like the random ensign that comes with the away team on Star Trek.

  17. #17 Tara Mobley
    March 2, 2006

    Glad to see the spider porn article moved over here. It was…very informative when I first read it and helped me recognise when a pair of orb weavers were involved in courtship activities last October.

    And the male got away just fine.

  18. #18 Alex
    March 3, 2006

    Speaking of arthropod sex, my wife-to-be and I got a kick out of the giant African millipedes (yeah, the foot-long ones) in an exhibit at the California State Fair a couple years back. We observed at least three couples evidently mating, which consisted of one laying atop the other, then turning the headward third or so of their bodies about 90 degrees in opposite directions, so that the undersides of their “torsos” were pressing closely together. They backed off slightly after a minute or so, with a droplet of whitish goo visible a few segments down from the head on one of them, which we inferred to be the female. We were rather *coughs* touched that they apparently took the time to cuddle for a while afterward. ^.^

  19. #19 romunov
    March 3, 2006

    Some spides bring a gift, so that their head doesn’t get eaten after they’ve mated. 😀

  20. #20 Fire Ant
    March 3, 2006

    Right on, ColinB! I always bring up the many, many twisted (to us boring mammals) sex habits of insects to any creationist/intelligent designer. Bondage? Yep. Incest? Yep. Mating with larval sisters? Yep. Who the #@%^ is this Intelligent Designer????

  21. #22 Hokuto
    October 21, 2008

    I want to thank you for this fascinating article; it helped me understand what I saw the other day when I discovered and photographed a couple of Japanese funnel-web spiders (Agelena limbata) in the midst of the hot and heavy; I’ve uploaded a series recording the event at Arachnoid Sex.

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