Nephila of Southern Africa

From the Spider Club of Southern Africa

by Jonathan Leeming

Golden orb-web spiders belong to the family Tetragnathidae, subfamily Nephilinae. There are
two genera: Nephila (Golden orb-web spiders) and the monophyletic genus Nephilengys
(hermit spiders). There are three species in the genus Nephila: Nephila pilipes fenestrata
(black-legged golden orb-web spider), Nephila senegalensis annulata (banded-legged golden
orb-web spider) and Nephila inaurata madagascariensis (red-legged golden orb-web spider).
The genus Nephilengys consists of a single species, Nephilengys cruentata (white orb-web
spider). These large, obtrusive spiders are one of the few spiders which can be identified down
to species without the aid of a microscope and a fancy key. They are strictly web bound and
find walking on the ground cumbersome. Nephila construct very large orb webs, often between
trees or bushes from 1.5m to 6m above the ground. Their silk is golden in colour and
extremely strong. There are trip lines around the web and quite often prey remains are strung
up to form a line through it’s center. Their slightly angled webs are designed to catch large
flying insects and small birds are occasionally snared, but rarely eaten. The female spider hangs
inverted in the center of the web, while one or more males lurk on the periphery of the web.
Males are many times smaller than the females and can be distinguished by their swollen
pedipalps which are similar to boxing gloves.

Nephila pilipes fenestrata has a creamy abdomen with a blueish marbling towards the rear and
has tufts of hair on the first, second and fourth legs. It is widely distributed throughout South
Africa, but absent from the drier western parts. Nephila senegalensis annulata has black and
yellow abdominal markings with yellow bands on its legs. It has the widest distribution
throughout South Africa. Nephila inaurata madagascariensis is more or less black, silver and
reddish-brown with red legs, and may be found in northern KwaZulu/ Natal. Nephilengys
cruentata spins a characteristic white web with a funnel-like retreat and is distributed
throughout the eastern coastal regions. It is generally blacker than Nephila and has a rounder,
less cylindrical, abdomen with an orange/ red breastplate.

Reproduction is similar for all Nephila. As in the case of Nephila senegalensis annulata, the
male spins a small sperm web onto which he deposits a drop of sperm which he sucks up into
his pedipalps. He will usually only approach the female when she is otherwise occupied i.e.
feeding. He descends towards her and inserts his pedipalps, one by one, into her genital
opening which is situated underneath her abdomen. Copulation may take as long as 15 hours
and afterwards the now exhausted male retreats to a safe place away from the female. When
ready to lay her eggs, she selects a suitable site and constructs an egg sac using special loopy
white silk. After a fortnight or so, the young spiders hatch inside the eggsac. At this time they
are still embryonic living off the yolk. Their mouthparts, venom glands, digestive tracts and
spinning organs are underdeveloped, and only after the yolk has been absorbed and their body
parts are properly developed do the spiderlings cannibalise each other and must disperse. Their
life history follows a yearly cycle with the females living slightly longer than the males.

These large, shy but beautiful spiders may look formidable but are not aggressive, and even
those who walk into their webs are unlikely to be bitten and although their bite is painful, it is
not of great medical importance.

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Last Updated: February 22, 2007