The spiders I’ve been raising live to be approximately two years old in the lab. What typically happens is that they start showing signs of decline: they aren’t as responsive, they begin to hide in small silken nests, they fall into lassitude, and then one day they fall to the ground, dead. I worry that I’m doing something wrong, that the cages are too humid or not humid enough, that some disease is spreading through the colony, but I’ve tried different regimes of watering them, it makes no difference. It’s not surprising that very small animals are not evolved to endure. I tend to think “The light that burns twice as bright burns half as long – and you have burned so very, very brightly, Roy,” about my little friends.
They live longer than they do in the wild, at least. The past couple of summers I’ve kept my eye on a few spiders that take up residence on the outside walls of my house. They thrive for a month or two, and then one day they’re abruptly gone. There are waves of spider species that flourish over time: early in the summer, I start to see young Parasteatoda and Steatoda building cobwebs along the downspouts and under the windows; mid-summer I see them being replaced by the denser webs of grass spiders; around the time of the first frost, they’re all gone or in decline. We had a large, beautiful cat-faced spider lurking under the eaves of our house all last summer, and then in the fall we found her unmoving corpse. Every year in late summer those big yellow garden spiders take over the grasslands, building their zig-zagged orb webs and growing large enough to hog-tie grasshoppers, and then they die as winter arrives, leaving behind another generation that will overwinter in egg sacs. It’s a tough life, being a spider, especially when you live in a region with strong seasonal variation and severe climate.
And then I read about a trap-door spider in Australia that was documented as living for 43 years. I don’t consider most of Australia to have a gentle climate, but what they did have was constancy, so they could be adapted to a fairly uniform seasonal environment. She also didn’t have to cope with months of sub-zero temperatures, which are harsh on little poikilotherms, and that also wipe out the prey these predators have to consume. Even spiders in the Australian wheat belt are going to die, sometimes in even more horrific ways.
When she arrived at the clearing that day, she noticed that the twigs around the door had lost their meticulous spiral fan shape. They lay scattered in disarray.
Mason looked at the silk door, and saw a tiny hole in the center, as if something had pierced it.
She lifted the door and lowered an endoscope into the burrow, and confirmed what she already suspected. The spider was gone.
A parasitic wasp had likely broken through the seal, and laid its eggs in 16’s body.
“She was cut down in her prime,” Mason said. “It took a while to sink in, to be honest.”
On April 19, Mason, Main and Grant Wardell-Johnson co-published a paper in Pacific Conservation Biology, announcing the death of spider 16 at age 43.
She was the oldest spider known to have existed, Mason wrote, eclipsing the previous record set by a 28-year-old tarantula.
Ugh. Parasitic wasps. I think I’d rather freeze to death, or gently fade away in the decrepitude of old age.