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A meal or a male: the ‘whispers’ of black widow males do not trigger a predatory response in females

Samantha Vibert*, Catherine Scott and Gerhard Gries

Author Affiliations

Department of Biological Sciences, Simon Fraser University, 8888 University Drive, Burnaby, British Columbia V5A 1S6, Canada

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Frontiers in Zoology 2014, 11:4  doi:10.1186/1742-9994-11-4

Published: 17 January 2014



Female spiders are fine-tuned to detect and quickly respond to prey vibrations, presenting a challenge to courting males who must attract a female’s attention but not be mistaken for prey. This is likely particularly important at the onset of courtship when a male enters a female’s web. In web-dwelling spiders, little is known about how males solve this conundrum, or about their courtship signals. Here we used laser Doppler vibrometry to study the vibrations produced by males and prey (house flies and crickets) on tangle webs of the western black widow Latrodectus hesperus and on sheet webs of the hobo spider Tegenaria agrestis. We recorded the vibrations at the location typically occupied by a hunting female spider. We compared the vibrations produced by males and prey in terms of their waveform, dominant frequency, frequency bandwidth, amplitude and duration. We also played back recorded male and prey vibrations through the webs of female L. hesperus to determine the vibratory parameters that trigger a predatory response in females.


We found overlap in waveform between male and prey vibrations in both L. hesperus and T. agrestis. In both species, male vibrations were continuous, of long duration (on average 6.35 s for T. agrestis and 9.31 s for L. hesperus), and lacked complex temporal patterning such as repeated motifs or syllables. Prey vibrations were shorter (1.38 - 2.59 s), sporadic and often percussive. Based on the parameters measured, courtship signals of male L. hesperus differed more markedly from prey cues than did those of T. agrestis. Courtship vibrations of L. hesperus males differed from prey vibrations in terms of dominant frequency, amplitude and duration. Vibrations of T. agrestis males differed from prey in terms of duration only. During a playback experiment, L. hesperus females did not respond aggressively to low-amplitude vibrations irrespective of whether the playback recording was from a prey or a male.


Unlike courtship signals of other spider species, the courtship signals of L. hesperus and T. agrestis males do not have complex temporal patterning. The low-amplitude ‘whispers’ of L. hesperus males at the onset of courtship are less likely to trigger a predatory response in females than the high-amplitude vibrations of struggling prey.

Sexual cannibalism; Sexual signalling; Latrodectus hesperus; Black widow spider; Tegenaria agrestis; Hobo spider; Vibration; Spider web