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Sorry, prey.Black Widow has a surprisingly good memory

Black Widow must despise Clint Sergi. While working on a PhD in biology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Sergi spent a lot of time designing small challenges for spiders—often including rewarding them with tasty dead crickets, or confusing them by stealing them. “The biggest question that motivated this work was wondering what’s going on inside the animal’s brain,” he said.

Biologists already knew that spider brains are not like human brains. Their sensory world is suited to living in the internet and dark corners. “Humans are very visual animals,” Sergi said. “These web-building spiders have almost no vision. They have eyes, but they’re mostly good at sensing light and motion.” Instead, he said, Black Widow’s Perception comes primarily from vibration, a bit like hearing. “Their legs are kind of like ears that receive vibrations through a web.”

In terms of cognition, biologists know that these spiders remember when they’ve caught prey. Some scientists, including Sergi, believe they can even form mental representations of networks. However, little is known about how detailed their memories are, or how past events influence their future decisions. So Serge and his advisor Rafa Rodriguez, an expert on spider cognition, decided to put Black Widow’s memory to the test. As you might have guessed, Sergi would offer dead crickets to spiders and then steal them back.

Results, they wrote in the journal Behavioural , showed that Black Widow’s memory was stronger than before Better to know. When their prey is stolen, the spiders repeatedly seek it out in the right places. In some cases, they seemed to be able to recall the size of their prey—more on the hunt for the largest stolen treats. “They don’t just use fixed behavioral patterns to respond to specific stimuli,” Sergi said. “They have the ability to make decisions.”

This work is a reminder that complex cognitive computing is common in the animal kingdom—internal navigation systems appear in large and tiny brains , including a brain that relies on vastly different sensory inputs. “This suggests that arthropods are capable of encoding complex memories that people often associate with vertebrates,” said Johns Hopkins behavioral neuroscientist Andrew Gordus, who was not involved in the work. “Invertebrates are much more complex than we thought.”

Sergi’s findings add more and more Evidence suggests that insects and spiders form and act on detailed memories, similar to the way humans do, but using very different mechanisms. We orient ourselves with ‘place cells’ in the hippocampus, which arthropods lack. However, says Godus, “their brain regions have evolved to perform the same function.”

Your central nervous system consists of a spinal cord and a 3-pound brain. Spiders have two groups of neurons called ganglia: one above and one below the esophagus. Key inputs to this brain come from thousands of sensors on the spider’s exoskeleton, called slit receptors. Each sensor looks like a tiny crack, deforming the spider’s body as vibrations sweep through it. (Some evidence suggests that widows can tune to different frequencies by adjusting their posture.) Spiders perceive vibrations very well, even about spiderweb part of its brain.

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