Black widow spiders in an urban desert: Population variation in an arthropod pest across metropolitan Phoenix, AZ

Patricia Trubl, Theresa Gburek, Lindsay Miles, James Johnson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

30 Scopus citations


The effects of urban disturbance are critical to understand, as the majority of the world's population now resides in urban centers. For example, urbanization often leads to reduced species diversity at the expense of a few urban-adapted taxa. However, it remains unclear why some taxa thrive following human disturbance whereas others do poorly. The western black widow spider, Latrodectus hesperus, thrives in disturbed, urban habitat-often forming dense aggregations (i. e., infestations) relative to typical low-density, desert populations. We examined the population dynamics of ten black widow aggregations spread across metropolitan Phoenix, AZ, during the peak of the breeding season (June-August). Here we show that prey abundance, female mass, web volume and population density exhibit minimal temporal variation across the breeding season, but that prey abundance, female mass and population density show significant spatial variation across the ten urban aggregations. Our measure of prey abundance and foraging success, the number of prey carcasses found in black widow webs, shared a strong positive relationship with female mass and population density, but not with web volume. Surprisingly, female mass, web volume and population density were not correlated with each other. The abiotic variables we measured at each site did a poor job of explaining black widow population parameters, although we did find a marginal trend for more recent developments to harbor denser black widow aggregations. Our findings support the generalization that urbanization heightens spatial variation, and we suggest that local urban prey abundance is influential in promoting urban infestations full of heavy, fecund female black widows. Studies of the population ecology of urban pests are necessary to identify the mechanisms allowing some species to thrive following human disturbance while much native biodiversity is lost following urbanization.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)599-609
Number of pages11
JournalUrban Ecosystems
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 2012


  • Latrodectus hesperus
  • Population dynamics
  • Spatial variation
  • Urbanization

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology
  • Urban Studies


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