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How to Tell if a Spider is Playing Dead

You can tell if a spider is playing dead if it has not curled up its legs under its body and is hiding its body or head underneath its legs.

Spiders play dead when they feel threatened. It is one of the defense mechanisms they will use when they feel like their life is under threat. It often happens when wolf spiders mate, for instance, and male wolf spiders want to avoid being eaten by the female, which is also known as sexual cannibalism.

When a spider dies, its legs will curl under its body, which is the natural mechanism of the “hydraulic” system of the spider’s legs when they’re not active. However, when a spider is playing dead, not all of its legs will curl under its body.

How to Tell if a Spider is Playing Dead or Not?

There are several ways to tell if a spider is playing dead or if it is really dead:

  • A spider that is dead will curl its legs upwards and under the body
  • A dead spider will also be desiccated and will appear drier than a spider that is playing dead
  • A spider that is playing dead, on the other hand, might have some of its legs curled up under its body, but not all of them
  • A dead spider will have its entire weight resting on its joints and not the toe pads

Sometimes, it might be hard to distinguish whether a spider is playing dead or if it is really dead. Some larger spiders, especially southern house spiders, tarantulas, and even the more venomous spiders like black widows, will play dead to fool predators.

And since some spiders see humans as their natural predators, they are afraid of them and will engage in this defensive mechanism. 

You should be very wary of picking up a venomous spider with your hands, even though it appears dead. Some spiders play dead to fool you, but they are not actually dead and might bite you if you try to touch them.

A good idea to measure whether they are playing dead or if they are really dead is to touch them with a piece of paper, or a piece of wood to see if they move. If a spider moves, then you can be sure that you should not touch it, but if the spider appears to be stiff, dry, and it doesn’t move, then it’s most likely safe to assume it’s dead.

Why Do Spiders Play Dead?

Spiders play dead when they feel threatened, and it is meant to fool their predators into thinking that the spider is dead so that the spider can counterattack when attacked, or to cause the predator to go away.

Some spiders also play dead for mating reasons.

For example, male spiders will often play dead to attract the female spider into mating. That is because female spiders might actually eat dead male counterparts, and some species also perform sexual cannibalism, which is the act of eating the male counterpart after mating.

This behavior is commonly seen with wolf spiders where the female will eat the male after performing a mating ritual.

But males have developed a defensive mechanism against this behavior. They will play dead when the mating is over, which might deter the female away from eating the male. It also buys the male time to escape or strike back before it is eaten by the female.

Which Spiders Play Dead?

One of the more common spider species to play dead is the Southern House Spider (Kukulcania hibernalis), which is commonly found in many homes of Northern, Central, and Southern America.

These spiders can often play dead when you spot them in your home. This is one of their main defensive mechanisms because they perceive you as a threat.

Luckily, Southern House Spiders aren’t very dangerous to humans, because they don’t have a bite that’s powerful enough to penetrate human skin and induce venom into our bodies. But you should still be wary when trying to pick up a spider that’s playing dead – make sure it is dead first before attempting to pick it up.

Other spiders that might play dead at some point include wolf spiders, tarantulas, black widows, and other species. 

If you see a venomous spider that plays dead such as a black widow, you should be very careful before picking it up. It might just be playing dead because they see you as a threat, and before you know it, you might be stung by a potentially harmful venom of this spider.

How to Spot a Dead Spider?

You can see if a spider is dead by looking at its legs – if they are curled under the spider’s body and if the body is leaning on the joints of the leg and not the feet, the spider might be dead.

Another way to see if the spider is dead is to look at its overall appearance. Dead spiders appear dry and free of moisture, while spiders that are alive will not appear like that.

It might be hard to establish the status of some spiders by simply looking at their appearance, though. You might want to poke the spider with a stick or a piece of paper to make 100% sure that the spider is dead, especially if you see a spider that is potentially harmful to you.

Conclusion

Spiders are one of the many species in nature that play dead for various reasons. One of the main reasons is for protection. When they feel threatened, they might curl their feet under their bodies or curl into a ball to appear as though they’re dead.

Sometimes, it can be hard to establish whether the spider is dead or is only playing dead. The best way to make sure is to touch the spider with a piece of wood remotely to make sure it’s not alive, but even then, some spiders might not move at all.