This past weekend I made a trip to the White River Hills region in extreme southwestern Missouri. My goal was to find additional localities of the prairie tiger beetle (Cicindelidia obsoleta vulturina), which inhabits dolomite glades in the area and is disjunct from the main distribution in Texas and Oklahoma. As I was checking a particularly large glade complex in Roaring River State Park, I came upon this banded garden spider (Argiope trifasciata) that had spun its web across the span of branches from a gum bumelia tree (Sideroxylon lanuginosum). As I approached the spider the web began moving back and forth quite vigorously, and it occurred to me that there was not nearly enough wind for the web to be shaking to such degree. I stood still, and eventually the shaking stopped and the web became still again. To test whether it was really the spider shaking the web intentionally, I raised my net to one side and drew it closer to the spider, and once again the web began shaking back and forth just as vigorously as before. I watched the spider closely as the web shook, and I could see that the spider was actually flexing its two front pairs of legs back and forth to cause the shaking. It was clear at this point that the spider was doing this in response to my approach, probably as a defensive reaction to a perceived threat.
I suppose I have seen this behavior before but always assumed the web was just shaking in the breeze. Not until this time, with no wind to speak of and the web shaking quite rapidly, did it become clear to me that this was actually an intentional behavior exhibited by the spider. Eisner (2005) also notes this behavior, stating that Argiope spiders often engage…
…in a bobbing action, whereby through a quick flexion of its legs it sets the web into vibration, making itself a blurred target that is hard to grasp.
The photos used to make this animated gif were not easy to get. The spider was situated in a rather high and awkward-to-reach spot, and the iPhone had difficulty focusing on the spider while it was in motion. I overcame these problems by setting myself in a stable position, holding the iPhone in place, zooming the screen slightly (about 33%) and locking focus on the spider while it was still, and then asking my field buddy (Steve Penn) to approach the spider to trigger shaking. Once it began shaking it was a matter of holding down the shutter while keeping myself and the camera still long enough for a sufficient burst of photos (eight photos were used in this gif).
Eisner, T. 2005. For the Love of Insects. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 448 pp. [Google Books].
© Ted C. MacRae 2014