Life on earth comes in a variety of sizes, shapes, and colours. Our world contains a diversity of life forms so vast that it would take many lifetimes to scratch the surface if we tried to list them. Interestingly, many of the most wondrous discoveries of intriguing life forms are in the minuscule world of invertebrates. Amidst growing interest in macro photography and nature education, the number of people noticing the little things seems to be growing. This is evidenced by the fanfare raised each time a Chrysilla volupe (a vibrantly coloured jumping spider) is photographed. While some spiders like the Chrysilla dazzle us like a psychedelic dream, this is the story of a highly discrete spider that mostly goes unnoticed. How discrete? There is a reasonably good chance that most of us have blissfully walked past it without realising its presence. Spiders in the genus Poltys have evolved to look like twigs, leaves, or even dried seeds to remain hidden from potential predators during the day.

While most spiders in the Araneidae family spend the day hidden in a retreat (a silken safehouse established close to the site of their webs), Poltys choose to hide in plain sight by looking like twigs protruding out of plants, as seeds fallen on branches, or even as dried leaves. These adaptations make them incredibly hard to spot for both predators and curious spider enthusiasts. When you manage to decipher their camouflage and find a Poltys (with no intention of eating it), you will find yourself spiralling down a seemingly endless well of questions. Does the spider know it looks like a twig? How does it know that twigs love to spend their afternoons being perfectly inanimate? How did it figure out that its natural predators are not fond of twigs for lunch? Where can I get a Poltys outfit to camouflage myself at family events?

 

The thing about imitating an inanimate object is that one needs to master the art of staying very still. Once a Poltys finds a suitable spot on a plant, it ceases all movement. It settles into a position with its head tucked between its legs and abdomen positioned to look like a natural continuation of the plant part beneath it. And just like that, the spider blends seamlessly with its environment. This is particularly helpful for a small spider hoping to avoid the attention of predators like wasps. While wasps themselves are known to use a combination of visual and chemical cues to find their prey, studies have shown that the chemical detection bit is achieved when the wasp is near a spider. By looking like twigs and staying perfectly still, Poltys reduce the chances of visually piquing the interest of passing aerial predators.

The thing about imitating an inanimate object is that one needs to master the art of staying very still. Once a Poltys finds a suitable spot on a plant, it ceases all movement. It settles into a position with its head tucked between its legs and abdomen positioned to look like a natural continuation of the plant part beneath it. And just like that, the spider blends seamlessly with its environment. This is particularly helpful for a small spider hoping to avoid the attention of predators like wasps. While wasps themselves are known to use a combination of visual and chemical cues to find their prey, studies have shown that the chemical detection bit is achieved when the wasp is near a spider. By looking like twigs and staying perfectly still, Poltys reduce the chances of visually piquing the interest of passing aerial predators.

As the light of day slowly fades, Poltys spiders slowly emerge from their daytime slumber to start their nightly hunt for a meal. Spiders in this genus (family Araneidae) build two-dimensional orb webs like the rest of their family. When night is done, and dawn approaches, the spider will consume its web and once again assume its sedentary daytime position. If you ever get the privilege of watching a Poltys transition between its motionless day avatar and an animated architect of webs at night and back again, take a moment to appreciate evolution’s truly wild imagination.

As the light of day slowly fades, Poltys spiders slowly emerge from their daytime slumber to start their nightly hunt for a meal. Spiders in this genus (family Araneidae) build two-dimensional orb webs like the rest of their family. When night is done, and dawn approaches, the spider will consume its web and once again assume its sedentary daytime position. If you ever get the privilege of watching a Poltys transition between its motionless day avatar and an animated architect of webs at night and back again, take a moment to appreciate evolution’s truly wild imagination.

The nocturnal lifestyle of Poltys is not limited to web-building. The spider also moves under cover of darkness searching for more lucrative locations for its web. Once a Poltys has found a suitable spot, it is known to stay there for extended periods. A study conducted by Helen M Smith titled “The costs of moving for a diurnally cryptic araneid spider” recorded a Poltys noblei that stayed in the same “residence” for approximately 263 days! These long periods spent by Poltys in the same location are likely associated with the disadvantages of moving, for a spider that has evolved to look like the surface it lives on (the substrate). What are these disadvantages? The most significant disadvantage for the spider appears to be the risk of moving to a new spot at night and being unable to find a substrate that matches its appearance in daylight. Another considerable disadvantage is that time spent moving at night is time lost sitting on a web and catching its next meal.

Poltys is a genus of spiders that tends to keep most spider enthusiasts and naturalists on a permanent treasure hunt. The prize at the end of this hunt? Spend time with this eight-legged evolutionary marvel. One can spend weeks training their eyes on the morphology of a Poltys that looks like a twig only to encounter one that looks like a dried leaf. One can apply Aristotle’s famous quote, “the more you know, the more you realise you do not know”, to these spiders. Just when you think you’ve seen every shape out there, you start to notice the mind-boggling colours and patterns on them. We cannot imagine how many more shapes, colours, and patterns are yet to be discovered in this truly fascinating genus of spiders.

The genus Poltys is not alone in making plant-themed fashion statements. Cyphalonotus is another orb-weaving spider genus that has adapted this curious strategy of looking like a twig. While there is no published information about this genus from India, some of the wonderful folks from The Karnataka Spider Club (a collective of spider enthusiasts) have spotted them around various parts of Dakshina Kannada. The remarkable moss-like patterns and colouration of the Cyphalonotus sp. seen in these images highlights evolution’s intelligent design. The spider’s impeccable positioning on the branch to make the best of its appearance is a subtle reminder of the spider’s intelligence.

Spiders like Poltys and Cyphalonotus are an excellent representation of the beauty and wonder surrounding us in our daily lives. These cryptic web architects exist in cities and towns across India. If you are reading this story and wondering how on earth you are going to spot a Poltys, start with the knowledge that they are web-builders, and look for them at night on elegantly constructed orb webs. If you are already a tad experienced with scouring the night for spider webs, an insider tip is to look for webs with an iridescent glimmer. When you suspect that the spider you are seeing is indeed a Poltys, take a picture and reach out to experts (on iNaturalist or social media) to get an affirmative identification. If you see a Poltys on a web, return to the spot during the day and begin what is likely to be a long treasure hunt.

Spiders like Poltys and Cyphalonotus are an excellent representation of the beauty and wonder surrounding us in our daily lives. These cryptic web architects exist in cities and towns across India. If you are reading this story and wondering how on earth you are going to spot a Poltys, start with the knowledge that they are web-builders, and look for them at night on elegantly constructed orb webs. If you are already a tad experienced with scouring the night for spider webs, an insider tip is to look for webs with an iridescent glimmer. When you suspect that the spider you are seeing is indeed a Poltys, take a picture and reach out to experts (on iNaturalist or social media) to get an affirmative identification. If you see a Poltys on a web, return to the spot during the day and begin what is likely to be a long treasure hunt.

Samuel John
Samuel John

is an ex-corporate zombie who found the answers to life, the universe, and everything, on a spider's web. He can be seen at times playing the blues for his eight-legged audiences.

Jithesh Pai
Jithesh Pai

is a software engineer by profession. When not coding, he imitates bird calls, observes and photographs eight-legged friends in his backyard. He posts as @wildphotostories_by_jithesh on Instagram.


Related Stories for You