Golden Orb-weaver Spider, Nephila

Specimen of Nephila in the Museum of Zoology
©University of Cambridge

Michael Pashkevich, PhD student in the Museum of Zoology, writes:

I grew up in the bottomland hardwood forests of Southeast Louisiana (USA), just north of New Orleans. These forests (which turn into swamps and then marshes as one approaches the Gulf of Mexico) are part of the famous wetlands ecosystems that are widespread across the Southeastern USA.

Although these forests are home to all sorts of critters, both large and small, there is none more fascinating than the golden orb-weaver spider. These spiders – from the genus Nephila – are well known for their silks, which glisten gold in the sun. The silks have incredible structural properties in addition to their beauty, and these spiders have therefore captured the interests of a broad range of people, from designers of haute couture fashion to materials science engineers.

Female golden-orb web spider and web
A female Nephila clavipes from a bottomland hardwood forest near New Orleans, USA. ©Michael Pashkevich

Even more fascinating about Nephila is their extreme sexual dimorphism. This is a term that describes when the sexes of a species exhibit different traits. In Nephila, this is very easy to see. Females are large-bodied spiders with brightly coloured bodies that are yellow, black, white, red, and orange, depending on the species. Their legs are covered in funny hair tufts that remind me of Jane Fonda-esque leg warmers. By comparison, males are small-bodied and almost entirely orange. They are so small that, if you aren’t looking closely, it is likely that you would miss a male Nephila in the web. Indeed, male Nephila are quite fragile in comparison to the females. This is a fact that I always include whilst doing outreach, particularly when there are men in the audience who behave like they just walked off the set of Love Island!

Male and female spiders
A male and female Nephila kuhlii, mid-mate, in an oil palm plantation in Sumatra, Indonesia.

My favourite aspect of Nephila, though, is that they are widespread across most tropical and sub-tropical climates. This means that encountering Nephila is not only a part of my childhood, but also a part of my present, as Nephila are abundant where I currently work in oil palm plantations in Sumatra, Indonesia. One species of Nephila found in this part of the world – Nephila pilipes – can be found in our Museum galleries (displayed under its old name, Nephila maculata). Nothing moreso wakes me up during a sleepy morning of fieldwork than walking into the web of a Nephila pilipes!

To be sure, Nephila are excellent examples that makes spiders as a group so fascinating:  they are funky, a bit creepy, and certainly do not conform to human notions of what is “normal”. To these ends, I think they are absolutely fantastic animals.


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