Have you ever been walking around your house and spotted a random spider with its legs curled inward and with no apparent movement?
The first thought for many people that happen upon a spider in this position is that the “spider is dead”.
But how many times is this really the case? Are all spiders that are curled up really dead or just faking?
Can spiders play dead?
This article discusses how and why spiders play dead and how you can tell when spiders are faking death or when they are really dead.
Let’s get started!
Do Spiders Play Dead?
Apparent death, playing dead, and playing possum are terms often used to describe when an animal is faking its own death.
Playing dead is a common behavior seen in many different species of animals in the animal kingdom including amphibians, birds, crustaceans, fish, insects, mammals, and reptiles.
Playing dead is an act of being immobile for a period of time quite often triggered as a response to a predatory attack or perceived predatory attack.
The act of playing possum shouldn’t be confused with the act of “freezing” in animals. Freezing is when prey detects a predator but doesn’t believe it has been spotted yet.
So it freezes as a way of staying camouflaged. This is a primary defense mechanism.
If the prey has been spotted and the predator is attacking, the animal may then attempt to play dead as a defense mechanism.
Playing dead is seen in many different animals (including spiders) and is believed to be a defense mechanism that can provide animals with a chance to escape, mount a defensive attack, or stay immobile in hopes the attacker will lose interest and move on to something else.
Many different species of spiders play dead for a number of reasons but the main reasons are for defense and mating, which sometimes go hand and hand due to female spiders in some species such as jumping spiders and wolf spiders that practice cannibalism after mating.
Spiders are small and don’t have great defense mechanisms against bigger predators so they have adapted to find different ways to survive.
Because most spiders are small, a defense mechanism used by some species is to play dead whenever a predator is around or attacking in hopes that the predator will believe it is dead, leave it alone, and move on.
However, this doesn’t seem like the most effective defense mechanism considering predators are most likely attacking a spider to eat it.
So many predators won’t just move on because the spider isn’t moving. If the spider just lays there and pretends to be dead, it will likely get eaten regardless.
If playing dead doesn’t fool a predator, the next line of defense for a spider is to run or fight. Most spiders have a pretty good sense of when to play dead and when to run away.
Do All Spiders Play Dead?
Not all species of spiders play dead when being attacked by a predator or during mating rituals.
Some species of spiders don’t exhibit this type of behavior and some spiders within a specific species may develop this behavior while other spiders in the same species may not have the same behavior.
Scientists are still studying why some spiders play dead while others don’t exhibit this type of behavior.
However, it is widely recognized that the main reasons that spiders play dead are as a defense mechanism against predators, as a mimicking tactic for prey, and during mating season for surprise mating attacks or to avoid being eaten after mating.
Let’s discuss the reasons spiders play dead in further detail.
Why Do Spiders Play Dead?
Spiders play dead for several reasons but one of the main reasons is as a defense mechanism against a perceived threat nearby.
Spiders play dead to avoid being attacked and eaten by predators. If spiders stay still and pretend to be dead, the hope is that predators will leave them alone and move on.
Some spiders will use this tactic to surprise attack predators in an attempt to gain the upper hand when running is not an option.
When spiders play dead, this gives them the ability to mount a counterattack against a predator that isn’t expecting an attack, which can give spiders time to escape or fight back (usually a fight to the death of either the spiders or the predators).
Some spiders play dead to draw in prey to make it easier for a surprise attack. Once the prey is close enough, the spider will surprise the prey and go in for the kill.
This can be an effective strategy for spiders which let the prey come to them and exert little energy by not having to chase prey down.
Some spiders play dead during mating rituals. This is typically seen in spiders for one of two reasons during mating.
Male spiders play dead to draw female spiders in close enough to surprise the females and jump on them, starting the mating process.
This method can be effective for males because female spiders are curious and will approach the males, giving them a great opportunity to surprise the females and start mating without the females’ consent.
Another reason male spiders play dead during mating is to avoid being eaten.
It is well-known that in some species, female spiders practice cannibalism on their male counterparts before or after mating.
Pretending to be dead can save the male spiders from being eaten by the females in certain instances.
After mating, male spiders play dead in hopes the female spiders will move on after mating and not try to kill and eat them.
This can be an effective method because females may lose interest if the male spiders appear dead and won’t try to cannibalize them after mating.
How Long Do Spiders Play Dead?
Spiders can be very patient when needed! While some spiders actively hunt during the day (such as jumping spiders and wolf spiders), other spiders rely on their webs for catching prey.
These spiders tend to be at rest a lot and are only triggered to spring into action when the prey gets caught in their webs.
Due to the way most spiders live their life when hunting prey and avoiding predators, they have developed the ability to be stealthy and to be still for long periods of time.
Most spiders that play dead, can do so for up to two hours or more when the situation warrants it.
However, I don’t believe this to be very accurate as not enough studies have been done to determine the actual length of time some spiders play dead.
The reason I say this is because I had a common house spider curled up in a corner of my downstairs office for around a week.
The spider never moved from the spot I first saw it and appeared to be dead every time I would enter the room!
Once roughly a week after seeing the “dead” spider had passed, I decided to remove the spider when I was cleaning the office area. Yes, I am a procrastinator!
I touched the spider with a piece of paper to move it because I choose not to handle spiders with my hands.
Once I touched the spider, it instantly started moving and got up from its stupor.
I was amazed that this particular spider stayed in the same spot for over a week and did not move once.
I was only in the office area for brief periods of time, so it’s not like the spider was in danger the whole time it was playing dead. It was definitely not in hibernation mode either.
To this day, I am still unsure why the spider played dead for so long, especially when there was no perceived threat around most of the time for the spider to fear.
But to me, that is proof that spiders can definitely play dead for much longer than just two hours if they need to.
How to Tell if a Spider Is Playing Dead
A spider that is actually dead will have all of its legs curled up underneath it because spider legs work like a hydraulic system. When spiders die, their legs no longer have fluid pumped to them so their legs curl up since there is no pressure keeping the legs erect.
A spider that is playing dead might have some legs curled up underneath it but not all legs will be curled. Since some spider legs work like hydraulics with the fluid being pumped into them, these legs will not curl as long as the fluid is pumped and the spider is alive.
This is the easiest way to tell if a spider is actually dead or just playing dead, but it still may be hard to determine just by looking at a spider in a curled position.
In some spider species – if they become dehydrated or severely stressed – they may appear dead because their hydraulic system can malfunction and cause their legs to curl.
If you have a pet spider and it is displaying these symptoms, it could be dehydrated or stressed.
It is best to avoid picking up any spider by hand whether you believe it is dead or not. If a spider is playing dead, it may end up biting you if you attempt to pick it up.
If you are attempting to remove a spider from your house, use gloves or scoop it up on a piece of paper or something similar instead of picking a spider up by hand – just to be safe.
9 Species of Spiders That Play Dead
Below are 9 common spider species that often play dead for defense and mating purposes.
1. Black Widow Spiders
Black widow spiders play dead as a defense mechanism against predators to avoid becoming a predator’s next meal.
Black widow spiders use their venom as a way to subdue their prey and liquefy their insides but this only works on smaller prey and doesn’t help much against large predators (in the moment).
For larger predators and certainly in the case of humans, some black widow spiders play dead when approached in hopes they won’t be noticed or in hopes that the predators will have no interest and move on.
2. Brown Recluse Spiders
Brown recluse spiders are also small spiders and have to rely on more than just their venom to survive in the wild.
Brown recluse spiders play dead to avoid predators and to give them time to escape or mount a counterattack when escaping is not an option against predators.
3. Giant House Spiders
Giant house spiders play dead when approached by humans if they feel threatened and can’t run away.
Giant house spiders exhibit this behavior in hopes that you will leave them alone and forget about them so they can eventually make their escape out of your sight.
4. Huntsman Spiders
Huntsman spiders are active spiders that hunt for their meals by doing a lot of moving and crawling around.
Because they move around a lot and are sometimes exposed to predators, huntsman spiders have developed the ability to play dead to avoid or fool predators into believing they are already dead.
5. Jumping Spiders
Some jumping spider species fake death as a way to protect themselves against predators but other jumping spiders play dead to avoid being eaten by their female counterparts.
During mating rituals, it is common for some female spiders to eat male spiders before or after mating.
To avoid being killed and eaten, some male spiders play dead in hopes the female will lose interest and leave them alone.
6. Nursery Web Spiders
Nursery web spiders play dead to attract mates or to re-establish the mating rituals.
Male nursery web spiders provide gifts to females. The gifts are usually in the form of wrapped insects for the females to dine on, but sometimes the gifts are empty shells of already drained insects or inedible items like seeds.
Males that present edible gifts will usually be permitted to mate longer and transfer more sperm than males that present inedible gifts or no gifts at all.
During the mating process, if the female moves away and attempts to re-establish mating, oftentimes the male will play dead in hopes that the female won’t try to attack and kill him.
Male nursery web spiders play dead after mating to avoid being eaten by the females. This holds especially true if the males didn’t bring a sufficient gift that females are able to dine on during the mating process.
7. Southern House Spiders
As with most house spiders, the common threat is humans. Southern house spiders play dead to avoid being attacked and killed by humans or other nearby predators.
Since they are not particularly fast or possess potent venom that can help in situations against larger predators, the best defense mechanism for them is to play dead and hope they will be left alone.
Although most tarantulas are bigger spiders, they still employ the tactic of faking death when larger predators are nearby.
Playing dead is not just seen in smaller spiders, although it is more common in smaller spider species.
Tarantula spiders play dead as a defense mechanism against predators and may also appear to be dead in certain medical situations when dealing with dehydration and stress.
If you have a pet tarantula and it appears to be dead, it is best to verify it is actually dead and not just dehydrated or stressed before getting rid of it.
9. Wolf Spiders
Wolf spiders play dead just like many other spider species. They play dead for the same reasons as other spiders.
Wolf spiders play dead to avoid being seen and attacked by predators that are nearby.
If you have a wolf spider in your house and it appears to be dead, it may just be faking because you are near it.
If you are unsure whether a spider is a dead spider or just faking death, you can typically tell by messing with it.
If you start touching the spider (preferably not with your hands), it will usually show some signs of life if playing dead isn’t working for it.
Some spiders play dead as a defense mechanism to avoid being killed by predators while other spiders play dead as a way of attracting female mates or to avoid being eaten by females.
Some species of spiders that play dead include black widows, brown recluses, huntsman spiders, house spiders, tarantulas, wolf spiders, and more.
You can typically tell if a spider is playing dead by checking to see if all of its legs are curled up into its body.
If you can’t tell if a spider is dead by looking at its legs, you can touch a spider or move it around when it is playing dead to see if it responds and starts moving.
While playing dead is a primary defense mechanism for some spiders, it doesn’t always work.
If a spider tries playing dead and that doesn’t work, the next instinct for the spider is to try to get away or fight.
Thank you for checking out this article on how and when spiders play dead.
If you enjoyed this article, we have many more great articles for you to read and enjoy.
To learn more about various spider behavior, check out our section on “spider behavior” to read more great articles about why spiders behave the way they do.