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In a Spider’s Snare
Step into the world of writers and photographers as they tell you about the best, worst, and quirkiest places and adventures they encountered in the field.

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By Richard Conniff Photographs by Darlyne A. Murawski

Spinning complex webs of incredible strength, the versatile spider makes things sticky for unsuspecting prey.

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

One day back home, I was watching a spider spin its astonishing construction between my desk lamp and telephone (it was a slow day), and I suddenly wanted to become a spider, at least for a little while. I picked up the phone (a cataclysm for the spider) and found a climbing instructor named Stefan Caporale, who agreed to help me build my own orb web, in the corner between two climbing walls at the YMCA in Worcester, Massachusetts. Caporale fitted me out with a climbing harness and Jumar ascenders. I’d never done any rope climbing, but with a slingful of the metal clips called carabiners over one shoulder and a rope bag in lieu of a silk gland over the other, I felt like Charlotte’s Web meets Rambo.

I was, of course, going to have to cheat, starting from the moment I climbed one wall, tied my first line, and looked across 15 feet (4.5 meters) of open space to the point where I’d be anchoring the opposite end. A spider bridges this span the same way it makes a parachute, by lifting its hind end and paying a length of silk out onto the breeze. This wasn’t going to work for me.

It was cheating just to look. A spider knows what’s happening around it largely by touch. It relies on as many as 3,000 vibration sensors, called slit sensilla, most of them on its legs. Eberhard had e-mailed me this thoughtful advice on my web-building: “Do it (as much as you can) with your eyes closed.”

Having tied my line to a bolt hanger, I climbed back down and climbed up the other wall, where I pulled my spanning line taut. Then I shinnied back out the spanning line, trailing rope behind me. The idea was to leave this rope slack and let the middle of it drop down to become the hub of the web. A spider can do this blindfolded. Then it rappels down from the hub and stretches a spoke to the bottom of the web, keeping the whole thing under tension. Creeping out into midair, 15 feet (4.5 meters) above the concrete floor, I moved by millimeters. My muscles quivered. Then I began to oscillate, until I was flailing wildly from side to side and spinning sweat in all directions. It took me a half hour to get the first spokes in place. The average orb-web spider, working at an effortless trot, would already have completed an entire web, with perhaps 30 spokes. Many spiders rush to complete their webs in the last minutes before dawn, to minimize their daylight exposure to predators and also to have everything nice for insect rush hour.

Get the whole story in the pages of National Geographic magazine.

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Stronger than bone and twice as elastic as nylon, spider silk has already proven its usefulness to spiders, but now scientists are looking into its potential importance to humans as well. Research is underway around the world to fabricate the tenacious fibers in the lab, and scientists hope to someday outfit soldiers and police in bullet-proof vests made of mass-produced spider silk. Some say spider silk can stop more than just a speeding bullet: Many experts claim that the silk of an orb weaver spider is so strong that a strand as thick as a pencil could stop a jumbo jet in flight.

—Eileen A. Yam

People Exploring Ecosystem Resources as Stewards (PEERS) Spider Catalog
Type in characteristics of the spider you are trying to identify and this database will give you names of possible species.

Discovery Online Expeditions—Spiders!
Learn all about spiders with this interactive exhibit produced in collaboration with the American Museum of Natural History.

World of Spiders
Read about spider courtship, web construction, and anatomy at this site produced by spider expert Paul Hillyard.


Foelix, Rainer. Biology of Spiders, 2nd ed. Oxford University Press, 1996.

Hillyard, Paul. The Book of the Spider: From Arachnophobia to the Love of Spiders. Random House, 1994.

Mason, Adrienne. The World of the Spider. Sierra Club Books, 1999.

Preston-Mafham, Ken, and Rod Preston-Mafham. The Natural History of Spiders. The Crowood Press, 1996.


Skelton, Renee. “Deadly By Nature,” National Geographic World (June 1998), 20-23.

Jackson, Robert R. “Portia Spider: Mistress of Deception,” National Geographic (November 1996), 104-115.

Sisson, Robert F., “The Spider That Lives Under Water,” National Geographic (May 1972), 694-701.

MacSwain, J.W. “Crossroads of the Insect World,” National Geographic (December 1966), 844-857.

Grosvenor, Gilbert. Our Insect Friends and Foes and Spiders: A series of Fascinating Stories of Bee, Ant, Beetle, Bug, Fly, Butterfly, Moth, and Spider Life. National Geographic Books, 1955.

Zahl, Paul A. “Back-yard Monsters in Color: Even in a Great City, the Insect Kingdom Reveals Its Shimmering Hues to a Hunter Armed with Patience and Kodachrome,” National Geographic (August 1952), 235-260.

Jenks, George Elwood. “Marvels of Metamorphosis: A Scientific ‘G-man’ Pursues Rare Trapdoor Spider Parasites for Three Years With a Spade and a Candid Camera,” National Geographic (December 1938), 807-828.

Passmore, Lee. “California Trapdoor Spider Performs Engineering Marvels,” National Geographic (August 1933), 195-211.


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