spider, organism, mostly terrestrial, of the class Arachnida, order Araneae, with four pairs of legs and a two-part body consisting of a cephalothorax, or prosoma, and an unsegmented abdomen, or opisthosoma.
The cephalothorax is covered by a shield, or carapace, and bears eight simple eyes. On the underside of the head (the cephalic part of the cephalothorax) are two pairs of appendages, the anterior pair called chelicerae and the second pair pedipalps, with which the spider captures and paralyzes its prey, injecting into it venom produced in the poison glands. The spider then liquefies the tissues of the prey with a digestive fluid and sucks this broth into its stomach where it may be stored in a digestive gland.
Breathing is by means of tracheae (air tubes) or book lungs, or both. Arachnid book lungs are similar to the gill books of horseshoe crabs but are internal and adapted to a terrestrial habitat. Young, growing spiders can regenerate missing legs and parts of legs.
Three pairs of spinnerets toward the tip of the abdomen produce protein-containing fluids that harden as they are drawn out to form silk threads. Several kinds of silk glands and spinnerets produce different kinds of silk used variously for constructing cocoons or egg sacs, spinning webs, and binding prey; other light strands are spun out for ballooning, or floating, the spiders, especially young ones, long distances on air currents. Spider silk is used for the cross hairs in certain optical instruments.
Spiders live chiefly on insects and other arthropods; some large spiders ensnare and kill small snakes, birds, and mammals. Many are cannibalistic; the female may eat the male when courtship and mating are completed. Several species of spiders have bites that are exceptionally painful, or even dangerous to humans. Species of black widow spiders, which are found in the warmer parts of the world including the United States and S Canada, have a virulent neurotoxic venom. The bite venom of the brown recluse spider of SE and S central United States decomposes tissue, resulting in slow healing and sometimes leaving a sunken scar as large as a quarter.
Among the more interesting spiders are the tarantula; the trapdoor spider, which ambushes its prey from a silk-lined burrow covered by a hinged lid; the orb weavers, which spin beautiful circular webs; the diving bell spider, which lives underwater and uses a silk-enclosed air bubble to breathe; and the crab spider, jumping spider, and wolf spider, named for their habits. Spiders are classified in the phylum Arthropoda, class Arachnida, order Araneae.
See B. J. Kaston, How to Know the Spiders (3d ed. 1978); R. F. Foelix, Biology of Spiders (1982); The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Insects and Spiders (1992).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.