Seduction is an awkward game. Stakes are high, as is the suitor’s vulnerability. But when the object of your desire is a ferocious predator that eats animals that look like you for breakfast, dating becomes a dance with death.


Darwin's bark spider

This is particularly true of Darwin’s bark spider (Caerostris darwini). The female is Goliath to his David; about 14 times his weight. To seduce her, the male must gingerly traverse her enormous web – a succession of tripwires designed to sense the slightest vibration – and copulate, all without triggering her attacking instinct.

The big spider in the middle of a web is, in fact, always female. Males are little more than walking sacs of sperm without the time, or need, for hunting. Their webs and weaponry are puny in comparison – females have the longest fangs and most potent venom. They also live longer and grow larger in order to nourish as many eggs as possible. To do so they’ve become nature’s greatest (and deadliest) engineers.

Males are little more than walking sacs of sperm without the time, or need, for hunting.

What makes Darwin's bark spider special?

Darwin’s bark spider is the world record holder. Her silk is the toughest biological material ever studied – twice as strong as any other spider’s and 10 times tougher than Kevlar. She uses it to spin the biggest webs ever recorded: one orb measured 2.8m2, with anchor lines over 24m long. She casts over streams with the web resting above water where it can trap flying insects as they hatch. One was found to contain 32 mayflies – their short life rendered even shorter by this extraordinary hunter.

Does the female Darwin's bark spider really eat her sexual suitors?

She’s not averse to catching and eating her sexual suitors before, during or after sex. Studies have shown that cannibalism provides the female with superior sustenance, as the nutrients derived from the male are effectively tailor-made for making baby spiders. Sexual cannibalism is thus the ultimate act of paternal care, as long as the munched male is actually the father

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A Darwin's bark spider in Masoala National Park in Madagascar. © Artush/Getty

Darwin’s bark spider females are promiscuous, so the male must not only stay alive long enough to inseminate, he must also prevent her from mating with others. To achieve this end, evolution has equipped him with some kinky solutions: bondage and genital mutilation.

First, he times his approach when the female is feeling vulnerable – just after she’s moulted and her exoskeleton is still soft. He then binds her legs with his silk so she can’t grab him. Next he drools on her genital slits. This enigmatic behaviour, not found in other spiders, may be an attempt to seduce her by signalling mate quality, or to digest any previous suitor’s sperm. After insemination, he ensures no other spider’s follow suit by chewing off his own genitals and using them to plug the female. An emasculating finale that secures his legacy, if not his life.


Main image: An illustration of a Darwin's bark spider. © Holly Exley


Author, broadcaster, Nat Geo Explorer and zoologist