Wild Connections

What blue-footed boobies and other animals tell us about human relationships

Will You Be My Valentine?

Tasty treats and stylish wrapping may steal her heart—in spiders, that is.

With Valentine’s Day just around the corner, I thought it would be the perfect time to talk about scrumptious gifts. I will admit that chocolate is my personal favorite. So deep is my affection for chocolate, that I would prefer a box of Teuscher Swiss chocolate to jewelry. I know, I know, some may call me crazy, but it’s true.

While my fondness for chocolate above all else may be rare, offering delicacies to a loved one is not uniquely human. We share this trait with many other species, including our eight-legged friends—spiders. Indeed, for many male spiders, every chance to seduce a female warrants an enticing food offering. No chocolate for these ladies though. Their delicate palates prefer tasty insects. From nursery web spiders to the South American trechaleid spider, males that come bearing gifts fare better than their empty-handed counterparts.  

Male spiders have to do two things when looking for love. First, they have to catch something yummy. Next, they must wrap it in homemade white silk. But females are finicky and don’t just accept any gift. In fact, if it’s not wrapped just so, she may reject it altogether. That’s right, female spiders pay attention not only to the quality of the gift, but also to how ‘pretty’ it looks. Why? Because each part, the catching and the wrapping, takes time, effort, and energy.

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I think it is fair to say that we also appreciate when our mates take the time, energy, and effort find a high quality gift. Luckily for us, quality is more subjective and depends largely on the individual. Much like their female many-legged counterparts, women are especially likely to ogle and coo over a dazzlingly wrapped gift. Although, we humans are probably more apt to pardon a thoughtlessly wrapped present, if the gift itself was lovingly selected.

But male spiders have a trick up their legs. Sometimes, they disguise a worthless gift in fancy silk wrapping. What’s a worthless gift to a female spider? An insect carcass. That means the male caught an insect, then, unable to resist, ate it, wrapped the leftovers, and decided to try to pass it off as a real gift anyway. That would be like offering one’s sweetheart a delicious box of chocolates, only for him or her to discover upon opening it that the box was empty! As you can imagine, there is nothing more disappointing than an exquisitely wrapped ‘empty’ gift—for both humans and spiders alike.

With all this in mind, regardless of what you may get for your sweetheart this Valentine's Day, you can hardly go wrong by putting some time, effort, and energy into choosing just the right gift. Oh, and if you have mad wrapping skills, that can’t hurt either. My suggestion: white silk.

For more on gift-giving in spiders see:

Mariana C. Trillo, Valentina Melo-González, Maria J. Albo. Silk wrapping of nuptial gifts as visual signal for female attraction in a crepuscular spider. Naturwissenschaften, 2014; DOI: 10.1007/s00114-013-1139-x

Jennifer Verdolin, Ph.D. is an animal behavior expert currently studying lemur personality and social networks at Duke University.

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