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Academic & Professional Books  Insects & other Invertebrates  Arthropods (excl. insects)  Spiders, Scorpions, Ticks & Mites (Arachnids)

Spider Webs Behavior, Function, and Evolution

By: William G Eberhard(Author)
658 pages, 195 b/w photos, 97 b/w illustrations
This 600-page tome is the first-ever in-depth book on the biology, evolution and diversity of spider webs, resulting from half a century of study by the author. A must-have reference work for any spider enthusiast and serious arachnologist.
Spider Webs
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  • Spider Webs ISBN: 9780226534602 Hardback Aug 2020 In stock
Price: £59.99
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About this book

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In this lavishly illustrated, first-ever book on how spider webs are built, function, and evolved, William Eberhard provides a comprehensive overview of spider functional morphology and behaviour related to web building, and of the surprising physical agility and mental abilities of orb weavers. For instance, one spider spins more than three precisely spaced spiral attachments per second for up to fifteen minutes at a time. Spiders even adjust the mechanical properties of their famously strong silken lines to different parts of their webs and different environments, and make dramatic modifications in orb designs to adapt to available spaces. This extensive adaptive flexibility, involving decisions influenced by up to sixteen different cues, is unexpected in such small, supposedly simple animals.

As Eberhard reveals, the extraordinary diversity of webs includes ingenious solutions to access prey in esoteric habitats, from blazing hot and shifting sand dunes to the surfaces of tropical lakes (to capture water striders). Some webs are nets that are cast onto prey, while others form baskets into which the spider flicks prey. Some aerial webs are tramways used by spiders searching for chemical cues from their prey below, while others feature landing sites for flying insects and spiders where the spider stalks prey. In some ground webs, long trip lines are delicately sustained by tiny rigid silk poles.

Stemming from more than five decades observing spider webs, Spider Webs will be the definitive reference for years to come.


Chapter 1. Introduction
Chapter 2. The “hardware” of web-building spiders: morphology, silk, and behavior
Chapter 3. Functions of orb web designs
Chapter 4. Putting pieces together: tradeoffs and remaining puzzles
Chapter 5. The building behavior of non-orb weavers
Chapter 6. The building  behavior of orb-weavers
Chapter 7. Cues directing web construction behavior
Chapter 8. Web ecology and website selection
Chapter 9. Evolutionary patterns: an ancient success that produced high diversity and rampant convergence
Chapter 10. Ontogeny, modularity, and the evolution of web building


Customer Reviews (1)

  • A benchmark for many years to come
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 10 Jun 2021 Written for Hardback

    You would think that after centuries of studying spider webs we have a pretty good grasp of them. Yet a thorough, book-length review of their construction, function, and evolution has been missing. Emeritus Professor William Eberhard has taken on that colossal task, based on his nearly 50 years of observing spiders and their webs. Some works go on to define their discipline. Spider Webs has all the trappings of becoming the arachnological benchmark for many years to come.

    At 21 × 28 cm and 658 pages, Spider Webs is big. A 12-page table of contents reveals the book's highly nested structure, many sections going down 4-6 levels (you may find yourself reading section on the importance of UV reflectance of silk stabilimenta). Almost 300 black-and-white photos and drawings of webs, often of species not included in previous literature. And if that was not enough, a 91-page online supplement with small print containing additional observations, tables, and musings. What makes these numbers mildly terrifying is that Eberhard almost apologetically mentions he avoids so much detail as to overwhelm the reader. Yes, 750 pages is what Eberhard holding back on his encyclopedic knowledge looks like.

    So, what is in the book? Eberhard includes much older literature often skipped over in review papers, and has included numerous of his own unpublished observations. He starts with a chapter on the spider's hardware (silk glands, spinnerets, and legs) and ends with two chapters on evolution. The construction and function of webs in chapters 3-8 forms the core of the book, though the order in which topics are discussed is not necessarily how a spider proceeds. Thus, Eberhard begins with an extended chapter on the function of orb webs, including 45 pages discussing incorrect and unsupported ideas, and the many trade-offs between its different properties and parts. Then follow chapters on web construction and cues used. For non-orb weavers this consists of "scattered bits and pieces of information" (p. 273). Orb weavers have been much better studied, and the descriptions of building behaviour (how a spider moves its legs and body to make an orb web) and the cues used to decide where to lay and attach lines span 120 pages in two chapters. And thus the first step in the process, how a spider decides where and whether to build a web, is discussed last. The properties of spider silk are only discussed briefly.

    Spider Webs is not a particularly difficult book. Eberhard wanted it to be accessible to the general reader and has by and large succeeded. Any reader serious about tackling a book this size is probably already familiar with the terminology and conventions used here. If not, the spider novice could start with e.g. Biology of Spiders. Spider Webs is, however, particularly rich in detail and minutiae. This is where the highly nested chapter structure comes into its own. I found it useful to bookmark the contents and refer to them while reading to keep my bearings. Throughout, there are summaries in subsections and summaries at the end of chapters, and summaries of summaries. The take-home messages are spelt out clearly, and I will highlight a few prominent ones.

    Eberhard warns against typology: published descriptions of webs and spider behaviour make it appear as if there are only a few ways of doing things, but that is a limitation of our language, not a reflection of reality. "The" web does not exist: there is much variation on the level of families, genera, species, and even individuals in the details of web construction, much of it poorly documented. There are fascinating variations on the theme (the elongated ladder webs to catch moths are but one of many examples included here). And this is before you even consider the material here on non-orb weavers. Tying in with that, the idea that spiders are little web-spinning automatons is mistaken. True, freshly hatched spiderlings succeed at their first attempt, and there is little indication that spiders improve with practice, but they combine information from a wide variety of cues (environmental and otherwise) during web construction and can modify their behaviour as needed.

    Despite claims to the contrary, it has never been shown empirically that orbs webs are optimum structures, and doing so would be very hard, argues Eberhard. Nor are orb webs the pinnacle of evolution. The higher-level phylogeny of spiders might not be fully resolved, but there is little doubt that orbs have evolved and secondarily been lost again multiple times. The large-scale evolutionary pattern is one of both high diversity and frequent convergence, resulting from "an especially ancient and thorough exploration of the adaptive space associated with webs" (p. 479).

    Next to everything we know, Spider Webs is as much a book about what we do not know. Eberhard reviews the many suggested functions of web traits (e.g. silk stabilimenta), only to point out that we often lack empirical data to decide one way or another. A particular sticking point is ecological realism. Much data that is collected (on e.g. number of prey available in the environment or their nutritional value) is flawed or of questionable relevance to spiders: "the cues that are used by spiders are not necessarily the same as the variables that are commonly measured by researchers" (p. 435). And we must not forget that spiders evolved in habitats undisturbed by humans until recently. Most data is now gathered in environments that spiders did not evolve in.

    Eberhard berates fellow arachnologists throughout, but is equally critical of his own failures and owes up to his changes of mind. Table 9.4 lists beautiful ideas slain by ugly facts and "gives a sampler of disappointments (with my own failures perhaps over-emphasized)" p. 480. As a bonus, there is a 15-page table in the supplement with hundreds of unanswered questions for future students and researchers to pursue. One might think Eberhard a curmudgeon, but that would ignore the fact that nature is complex and does not readily yield to the order that we wish to impose upon it. Here is someone who has studied spiders intensely and I must agree with his outlook that "intellectual rigor is useful; little is gained (and much is lost) by ignoring the limitations of data to support or discard particular conclusions" (p. 87).

    Spider Webs is one of those rare books that sets a discipline's research agenda for decades to come and cannot be ignored. This book has set the bar and has set it high. For professional arachnologists this is a vital and invaluable reference work. For serious spider enthusiasts it is an absolute treasure trove. Beyond the spider community, however, there is much here of interest to ethologists and evolutionary biologists.
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By: William G Eberhard(Author)
658 pages, 195 b/w photos, 97 b/w illustrations
This 600-page tome is the first-ever in-depth book on the biology, evolution and diversity of spider webs, resulting from half a century of study by the author. A must-have reference work for any spider enthusiast and serious arachnologist.
Media reviews

"This is a wonderful book. In it Eberhard explores the mechanical and evolutionary aspects of spider webs from all sides. The book is lavishly illustrated with photographs of webs appearing throughout. Each chapter has a down-to-earth summary that repeats the main points of the chapter. Eberhard is not afraid to rail against the many errors that infect previous work on spiders and webs, including adultophilia (the tendency to ignore the webs of juvenile spiders), typology (the eagerness to describe 'the' spider and its web when in reality there are many variations in the webs of any one species), and many more shortcomings. But by far the strength of the book is Eberhard's ability to tell his readers what is needed on topics A to Z if we are to test hypotheses further. This willingness to lay out predictions that are derived from particular hypotheses on puzzling behaviors that have not been checked makes the book a gold mine for students of spider webs and indeed for all animal behaviorists."
– John Alcock, Arizona State University, author of Animal Behavior: An Evolutionary Approach

"There is only one comparable book on this topic that was published over thirty years ago, and it is not comprehensive. Eberhard's book is an extensive, encyclopedic review of what is known (and unknown) about spider webs today. It also provides many original observations from Eberhard himself."
– Rainer F. Foelix, author of Biology of Spiders

"A comprehensive book on all aspects of spider webs is long overdue, and Eberhard is one of the few biologists – if not the only one – who has the knowledge, passion, and expertise to write such a book. Very thorough and detailed, Spider Webs is of great importance to specialists in its field, especially since it not only summarizes previously published studies, but also presents new ideas and views on structure, construction, function, and evolution of spider webs and their (potential) relevance to many different fields of biology."
– Samuel Zschokke, University of Basel, Switzerland

"Spider Webs provides both an authoritative and unique synthesis of research and still-to-be-addressed questions on spider web biology. There is no one better equipped to write a book on this subject than Eberhard. It will be a major contribution to the fields of ecology, evolution, and behavior, providing new information, new syntheses, and new insights on a broad range of topics."
– Brent Opell, Virginia Tech

"The big book on this exciting subject, lavishly illustrated and based on over five decades of research. Eberhard answers any query about the origins, morphology and utilization of spicier webs, as well as their weavers' surprising mental and physical capabilities."

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