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City spiders are getting bigger - but that's a good thing


Lizzy Lowe, University of Sydney and Dieter Hochuli, University of Sydney

Co-author and PhD student in Ecology at University of Sydney, Lizzy Lowe.

Co-author and PhD student in Ecology at University of Sydney, Lizzy Lowe. Photo: Supplied

Find yourself thinking that the spider living in your garden is the biggest you’ve ever seen? You could be right.

New research shows some spiders are getting larger and even doing better in cities than in their natural habitats.

In a study published today in PLOS ONE, we show that city living is leading to bigger spiders that have the potential to produce more young. We studied golden orb weaving spiders (Nephila plumipes) which are found along the east coast of Australia. Compared to their relatives in the bush, we found that city-dwelling orb weavers were bigger and had larger ovaries.

But bigger spiders aren’t the only effect cities have on wildlife. Growing amounts of research suggest native animals are evolving to live in our cities, alongside people. That’s good news too — spiders help stop insect populations getting out of control, and are also a sign that nature in cities is more resilient than we might think.

City spiders

We collected these spiders from parks, gardens and bushland patches and investigated differences in the spiders' body sizes, fat reserves and ovary weights. The study found that when spiders lived in urban areas they increased in size and had larger ovaries, indicating increased reproductive capacity.

There were strong associations in particular between spider size and the presence of hard surfaces (such as roads and buildings) and lack of vegetation. These hard surfaces contribute to the urban “heat island” effect, which makes it warmer in cities than surrounding areas.

It is also likely that there is more food for the spiders in the city as a result of night lighting and increased resources. This combination of warm temperatures and more food would allow spiders to put more energy towards growth and reproduction. Fewer predators and parasites in urban areas could also allow urban spiders to grow larger.

But don’t start reaching for the bug spray just yet. Although you may not like the idea of living in close proximity to spiders, we need them in cities because they are vital components of terrestrial ecosystems. The incredible diversity of spiders in Australia means that they play many important roles and contribute to biodiversity — the total number of different species found in an environment.

Many plant-eating insects may become pests if spiders aren’t around to eat them. Spiders are also an important food source for many birds.

Winners and losers

It’s good news that some spiders are able to survive in cities, but not all species are so lucky. Cities are not typically hospitable places for wildlife. Humans have modified the natural world so extensively that most animals can’t survive in urban landscapes and become extinct in human-inhabited areas.

But some species are urban exploiters, such as pigeons and crows, which thrive in urban areas and are adapting to take advantage of novel environments. This leads to an increase in the numbers of some species but an overall decrease in biodiversity.

There is increasing evidence that city living is driving physical and biological changes in urban wildlife.

For example, due to noise pollution, crickets and birds in the city have both been shown to change their calls in order to be heard. Other studies show some birds have altered the time of year they reproduce and in extreme cases have completely stopped migrating.

It is difficult to determine whether these changes are due to individual flexible responses or if urban populations are undergoing evolutionary change.

But one study found that birds from urban areas have evolved in response to the intense selection pressures cities place on organisms trying to live there. The urban birds were bolder as a result of increased exposure to human activities.

As invertebrates have relatively short generation times and urbanisation can be a strong selective pressure, it is likely that cities are driving the evolution of many urban invertebrate species.

The implication of these studies is that human activities are not just affecting which species can live in cities but may be causing the animals to undergo rapid evolutionary change.

Urban wildlife: not just nice to look at

Understanding the effects of urbanisation on wildlife is essential for the maintenance of biodiversity in cities. Having native plants and animals in our cities is not just important for conservation, it’s also essential for human health and education.

People are happier and healthier when surrounded by green space, and we can’t expect future generations to care about conservation if the only animals they have ever seen are rats and pigeons.

So the fact that some spiders are loving cities is cause for hope. In fact, in order to maintain biodiversity in cities we need to be able to support more diverse populations of spiders and other invertebrates.

By gaining a better understanding of the impacts of urbanisation on wildlife in cities we can work towards creating healthy, functioning ecosystems in urban areas.

The Conversation

Dieter Hochuli has received funding from the Australian Research Council and the Environmental Trust of New South Wales for this research.

Lizzy Lowe does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

11 comments so far

  • A good news story on the web at last.

    Date and time
    August 21, 2014, 11:25AM
    • Pun intended?

      Date and time
      August 21, 2014, 1:50PM
    • Yup

      Date and time
      August 21, 2014, 3:20PM
  • Totally agree. We are happy to share the produce of our garden with the bats and possums and allow the resident bush turkey, Bruce to use a corner for his nest. Of course we have set some boundaries by using nets and barriers so the back yard and trees aren't totally destroyed. Great pleasure to see the persistence and perseverance with which Bruce tends to his nest and eggs.

    Indrani Ganguly
    Date and time
    August 21, 2014, 11:58AM
    • Good for you! I get sick of reading or hearing about people whinging about Brissy wildlife and their precious gardens. Let the wildlife do what they want and be grateful you've got them! I'e always wanted my own Scrub Turkey in the back yard at Norman Park, but alas........

      Burleigh Heads
      Date and time
      August 21, 2014, 1:28PM
    • Folklore has King Bruce of Scotland being inspired by a spider's repeated attempts to spin a web across a cave he was hiding in to evade the English. It was after the seventh attempt that the spider succeeded that inspired Bruce to rally and drive back the invaders on also his seventh attempt.
      Also spiders are attributed to saving King David, Jesus and Muhammad, although this appears to be the same story (nothing like some cultural "appropriation" to assimilate the locals). Yes, Spiderman was my first superheroe as well.

      Slogans for Bogans
      Date and time
      August 21, 2014, 2:05PM
  • I for one like having spiders, because they eat all the other insects.

    Date and time
    August 21, 2014, 12:25PM
    • Ditto - just as I have no problem with my resident geckos for exactly the same reason. Cleaning up the occasional bit of gecko poo is a small price to pay for that.

      Date and time
      August 21, 2014, 4:59PM
    • No Emily. The geckos eat the spiders. Any introduced species is likely to produce an imbalance in the environment.
      Cane Toads, Asian Geckos, Indian Mynahs, Doves, Rabbits, Foxes, Camels, Salvation Jane (aka Paterson's Curse), Prickly Pear...
      Even grasses. Couch grass has taken over the bed of the Todd River many miles south of Alice Springs, and is spreading outward

      Paul D
      Date and time
      August 22, 2014, 11:34AM
  • We're seeing fewer and fewer spiders, I believe because of the (introduced) geckos. Don't mind the lack of Redbacks, but I miss the Hunstmen and the Golden Orb Weavers.
    We have a regular visiting (not resident) Scrub Turkey and a resident Blue Tongued Lizard.and the occasional visiting possum.
    Birds come and go. The Mickeys (Noisy Miners) were driven out by Indian Mynahs (cane toads with wings) a few years ago, but the Mickeys have fought back and are on top again.
    And we have two bloody doves who keep trying to nest on a big staghorn right outside my window. Those two I could cheerfully throttle, but I have to make do with dismantling their nesting efforts. They're too stupid to give up.

    Paul D
    Date and time
    August 21, 2014, 2:43PM

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