Catherine Scott is a graduate student working toward her Ph.D. at the University of Toronto. She’s studying the courtship behavior of black widow spiders. That means that her experiments often involve waiting for spiders to have sex.
And because her lab keeps a breeding colony of spiders (so they don’t have to go out into the field and capture new adults for every experiment), even when she’s not doing experiments she can be waiting for spiders to have sex. That was the case last Friday, when she set up four mating arenas to try to bulk up the numbers of one black widow species in the lab.
Once she’d put a male and a female in each case, she settled in to watch. When we asked why, she explained, “I was sitting in the room hoping to catch them in the act because it’s easier to tell for sure that they are copulating in real life than by reviewing the video footage.”
Her wait, recorded in tweets, give you a taste of how much patience goes into studying animal behaviors.
By 2:00 pm on Friday afternoon, she’s already spent two hours watching male and female spiders act like middle schoolers at an 8th grade dance.
Things start looking up when one male shifts into courtship behavior.
But he backs off.
Hopes are raised, and dashed again moments later.
And over in the other arenas, there’s not a lot of courting going on.
Leaving Scott to put her hopes on the pair in arena #1.
This is the point when we find out she’s not just waiting for the spiders to have sex, she’s sitting in the dark waiting for the spiders to have sex. Ah, science.
Back in arena 1, there’s some potential action.
Apparently, males can do this for hours.
Huzzah! But after a couple of minutes...
Male #1 tries to approach the female two more times, but she doesn’t seem that interested.
What about the other arenas? Nope, no spider sex there, either.
Before male black widows start courting, they destroy part of the female’s web. Scott has found that the behavior keeps other males from finding the female and edging the first male out. If she fixes her web, the male needs to back up and re-destroy part of it. Scott also explains why it matters that male #1 only has one pedipalp.
This is, for those of you counting, male #1’s sixth move toward the female.
And he’s sure taking his time about it.
After another 30 minutes, he’s still hanging right next to the female.
Scott’s been incredibly patient, but she’s hungry. Fortunately, she has a technological fix for the waiting and watching problem.
As of Sunday, she still doesn’t know whether her spiders mated.
Photo of male black widow by
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