16 Jan 2022

Grant to help understand if spiders can count

From The Weekend , 11:10 am on 16 January 2022

Dr Fiona Cross loves spiders. She loves their webs, the mini eyes, their mini legs. She is an arachnologist, that is, as the name might suggest, one who studies spiders.

Although, as she told Emile Donovan, she had quite a phobia about them when she was younger.

“I used to recoil in horror with spiders. I used to be absolutely terrified of them.”

Gradually she went from fear to fascination, she says.

Golden Orb Spider resting on its web during the daytime.

Photo: Robert Downer/123 RF

“The more that I learned about them, the more I realised they're actually a lot more interesting than I could ever have imagined. And it just became a very big part of my life.”

She is now an expert on the jumping spider and has been given a grant to find out more about these sharp-eyed predators.

“What's so interesting about them is that they can actually see remarkably well. For an animal of this size, they have actually got better eyesight than any other animal of their size.

“They generally don't build webs for capturing their prey, they hunt for their prey in ways that resemble tiny cats. So, what they do, because they can see so well, they might see a fly on the wall, and they sneak up to that fly really slowly. And at the right moment, they pounce, and they grab the prey.”

One of the areas of her research is animal cognition.

“What is special about that fly, for instance? And what strategies does the spider use for capturing its prey?”

They are unique to look at, she says

“The way to tell that you found a jumping spider is by looking at it and then seeing if it looks back at you with its two big eyes at the front.

“You'd think jumping was its most defining feature, but it's actually their really good eyesight that sets them apart from other spiders. And that's their defining feature. They've got eight eyes, but it’s those two big eyes at the front that can help the spider to see so well.”

Her grant will help her answer the question, ‘do spiders count?’

“Very little is known about what number means to a spider. There's been lots of work done with other animals, including human infants, and also other primates, other mammals, birds, fish, insects, especially honeybees, but not so much known about spiders, in fact, very little.

“And we want to know what number means to a spider because that gives us a greater idea of how far a number sense extends throughout the animal kingdom.

“It also helps us to understand what these tiny brains are capable of doing. If you think how a jumping spider has a brain that would comfortably fit on the pinhead and yet preliminary evidence has shown that number does matter to spiders, for instance, in terms of the number of prey it encounters, so we want to learn more about this.”

They will aim to discover more about this by creating a a spider virtual reality, she says.

‘I've got a colleague in Australia who's designed virtual reality especially for jumping spiders - looking at how they pay attention to number so that's what we're really excited about and what we want to learn more about.”