Jumping Spiders: Smarter than the Average Spider

January 26, 2016 | Joanne Kennell

Close-up of a jumping spider with four circular eyes
Photo credit: Opo Terser/Wikipedia (CC BY 2.0)

Recent study finds that arachnids demonstrate "genuine cognition."

Although jumping spiders have a brain the size of a poppy seed, they are actually quite smart.  A new study shows that many species of jumping spider plan out intricate routes and detours to reach their prey — a quality usually observed in larger creatures.

Jumping spiders, of the subfamily Spartaeinae, are known for their bright colors, elaborate mating dance involving intricate footwork, extremely sharp vision, and fantastic awareness of three-dimensional space.

“Their vision is more on par with vertebrates,” Damian Elias of the University of California, Berkeley, who wasn’t involved in the new research, told National Geographic.  “And that allows them to do things that are physically impossible for other animals that size.”

So what sort of prey do jumping spiders hunt for?  Simple, other spiders. Portia fimbriata, a type of jumping spider, has demonstrated that they are able to sneak up on prey spiders, and even find hidden prey by visualizing its location and planning paths to get to it.

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But the question is: Can other jumping spiders do the same?

To test this theory, Robert Jackson of New Zealand’s University of Canterbury and his colleague Fiona Cross, set up an obstacle course testing 14 different species of Spartaeinae.  Since these spiders do not like getting wet, the course consisted of a tower on a platform surrounded by moats, and at the top of the tower, a hungry spider could see two distant boxes: one containing spider fragments, and the other containing leaves.

To reach the food, the spider had to crawl down the tower onto a platform, and then cross one of two pillars leading to separate suspended walkways — one to the food and one to the leaves.

To make the course more challenging, once the spider started its descent down the tower, the researchers emptied the boxes to remove the spider’s visual reminders of where the food is located.

Amazingly, each species of jumping spider completed the obstacle course extremely well and made it to the box containing the food, according to the study published in the Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior.  Even if the spider chose the wrong path, it paused and seemed confused.  “Their expectations for what they were going to weren’t met,” said Cross to National Geographic.  “It wasn’t part of their plan.”

The results of the paper seem to indicate that jumping spiders demonstrate “genuine cognition.” In other words, they think before they act, and when their plan doesn’t work out, they adapt and take a detour.  

“What they do just astounds me,” said Cross.

Researchers hope that one day they will understand how these intelligent spiders think.

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