Black widows on an urban heat island: extreme heat affects spider development and behaviour from egg to adulthood

J. Chadwick Johnson, Emily Garver, Taylor Martin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

11 Scopus citations


Urbanization rapidly alters the environment, often leading to decreased biodiversity. One abiotic selection pressure uniquely associated with urbanization is the urban heat island (UHI) effect—wherein built structures (e.g. paved surfaces) capture heat during the day, retain it through the dark cycle and result in significantly elevated night-time temperatures. Relatively few studies have asked what effects the UHI might have on the development and behaviour of urban animals, and even fewer have asked this question of urban arthropod pests who rely on external heat sources and can experience explosive urban population growth rates. In particular, behavioural plasticity is often cited as a critical phenotype for organisms to thrive after rapid environmental change such as urbanization. Here, the relationship between elevated urban temperatures and behaviour was examined in the western black widow spider, Latrodectus hesperus. With regard to the UHI, young spiderlings raised at urban, elevated temperatures showed significantly reduced life span, reduced body mass, elevated web building, heightened voracity towards heterospecific prey and sibling cannibalism. In contrast, males studied later in the final prereproductive moults and raised at urban, elevated temperatures showed reduced life span, decreased adult body condition and increased voracity towards prey. We found no effects of temperature on late-stage male web building or courtship behaviour. UHI temperatures simulated in the laboratory present black widow spiders with a myriad of developmental problems, but our data suggest these spiders use temperature-sensitive behavioural plasticity to attempt to accommodate this stressor.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)77-84
Number of pages8
JournalAnimal Behaviour
StatePublished - Sep 2020


  • behavioural plasticity
  • prey abundance
  • spider behaviour
  • urban ecosystem

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Animal Science and Zoology


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