Opinion Brief

The spider that builds its own lifelike decoys

Don't be fooled by this master trickster

Many people find spiders scary little things, and a seemingly new species in the Cyclosa genus takes the creepy factor to a whole new level. Trekking through the Peruvian Amazon, biologist and science educator Phil Torres spotted this eight-legged arachnid (which is just one-quarter-of-an-inch long) perched above an intricate, lifelike replica of itself constructed from leaves, dead bugs parts, and other scraps.

Strangely, the fake was larger (roughly an inch long) than the original, but Torres was nonetheless dazzled by its makeshift complexity. Why would a spider go to the trouble of building an elaborate copy of itself in the first place? After consulting with arachnid experts, Torres concluded that the spider was attempting to scare off would-be predators. "You could call it a spider decoy, in a sense," says Torres. "The spiders arrange debris along specialized silk strands called stabilimenta in a symmetrical form that makes it look almost exactly like a larger spider hanging in the web."

Cyclosa are already known for building tricky, deceptive targets in their webs, but usually they just craft little balls that resemble tasty egg sacs. As Torres points out, "Studies have found that some Cyclosa species have a higher survival rate against potential predators like paper wasps because the wasps end up attacking the debris in the web rather than the spider itself." This, however, marks the first time a human observer has seen an arrangement of debris that includes legs and a torso — the whole nine yards, really.

"I'm no scientist," says Michael Austin at National Review, "but if a spider is making a decoy spider out of twigs and leaves, doesn't that mean it has self-consciousness? It has to know that it looks like, and that it sits in a web, and has to know how to create what can only be considered art." Yes. Still, this crafty little guy has a long way to go before it can be recognized as a new species, says Kimber Streams at The Verge. Torres will go back to the Peruvian site in January to collect specimens that can be compared to other arachnids. Only if the specimens are biologically different from the others will they be considered a new class.

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