Biological Reviews of the Cambridge Philosophical Society

Review Article

The functional significance of silk decorations of orb-web spiders: a critical review of the empirical evidence

M. E. HERBERSTEIN a1c1, C. L. CRAIG a2a3, J. A. CODDINGTON a4 and M. A. ELGAR a1
a1 Department of Zoology, University of Melbourne, Victoria 3010, Australia
a2 Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA 02138, USA
a3 Biotechnology Center, Tufts University, Medford, MA 02155, USA
a4 Department of Entomology, NHB 105, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC 20560–0150, USA


A number of taxonomically diverse species of araneoid spiders adorn their orb-webs with conspicuous silk structures, called decorations or stabilimenta. The function of these decorations remains controversial and several explanations have been suggested. These include: (1) stabilising and strengthening the web; (2) hiding and concealing the spider from predators; (3) preventing web damage by larger animals, such as birds; (4) increasing foraging success; or (5) providing a sunshield. Additionally, they may have no specific function and are a consequence of stress or silk regulation. This review evaluates the strength of these explanations based on the evidence. The foraging function has received most supporting evidence, derived from both correlative field studies and experimental manipulations. This contrasts with the evidence provided for other functional explanations, which have not been tested as extensively. A phylogenetic analysis of the different decoration patterns suggests that the different types of decorations are as evolutionary labile as the decorations themselves: the analysis shows little homology and numerous convergences and independent gains. Therefore, it is possible that different types of decorations have different functions, and this can only be resolved by improved species phylogenies, and a combination of experimental and ultimately comparative analyses.

(Received July 21 1999)
(Revised June 26 2000)
(Accepted June 28 2000)

Key Words: Araneidae; Uloboridae; Tetragnathidae; Stabilimenta; Araneae; Behaviour; Phylogeny.

c1 Author for correspondence: M. E. Herberstein, Department of Zoology, University of Melbourne, Victoria 3010, Australia (e-mail: