Do spiders dream of organic fleas? Scientists think there’s a chance they might

A young jumping spider hangs from a thread in a laboratory. Is it asleep? Scientists think it might be (Credit: Daniela C Roessler via AP)

Do spiders dream of building webs and catching flies? Of waiting for the telltale vibrations of prey unlucky enough to get stuck in their thread?

Strictly speaking, it’s impossible to say. Even now, scientists aren’t even totally sure they sleep.

But reseachers have found the creatures exhibit all kinds of behaviours you’d expect to see in other animals known to experience dream-filled sleep.

Evolutionary biologist Daniela Roessler made the discovery with colleagues after she noticed jumping spiders in her lab hanging from threads in their containers at night.

‘It was just the most unusual thing I’ve ever seen,’ she told the Associated Press.

Animals like cats and dogs — as well as humans — go through various phases of sleep including ‘REM’ or ‘rapid eye movement’.

As you might expect, when you’re in REM sleep, your eyes will dart around very quickly in their sockets. This is often accompanied by movements like twitching limbs.

It’s also the period of sleep when we’re most likely to dream.

Roessler and her team studied their jumping spiders closely to find out whether they exhibited anything similar.

REM is relatively easy to observe in larger animals. But it can be tricky in creatures as small as spiders, some of whom have static eyes that simply can’t dart around.

Luckily, the jumping spiders in Roessler’s lab have four big eyes with retinas that move as they track prey. The younger spiders also have see-through bodies, which makes their movements easier to observe.

Harvard University evolutionary biologist Paul Shamble, who co-authored a paper on the spiders with Roessler, said, ‘Sometimes as a biologist, you just get really, really lucky.’

As they observed the spiders, the researchers saw their retinas move around and their bodies twitch in several cycles over the course of a night.

At this stage, it’s still too early to say whether the creatures are really experiencing sleep — let alone dreams — or just resting.

Spiders are very far removed from humans along the evolutionary tree. The question of whether they can really experience sleep in anything like the same way as us will need a lot more research.

As Roessler wrote on Twitter: ‘Does this mean spiders dream? We do not know. But the possibility is exhilarating… I can’t wait to continue my research on this for the next couple of years.’

MORE : Mum finds ‘cooked spider’ in Walkers bag and vows ‘never to eat crisps again’

MORE : Male spiders catapault themselves through the air to escape being eaten by females

MORE : Spiders the size of your palm rising in UK after coming back from brink of extinction

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