The Case of the Cool Invader: How Animals Cope With New Temperatures

This is a guest post by Dr. Monica Mowery.

Title Image Credit: John Tann, CC BY 2.0, image Cropped

Invasive Widow Spiders Perform Differently at Low Temperatures than Conspecifics from the Native Range (2022) Mowery, Anthony, Dorison, Mason & AndradeIntegrative and Comparative Biology.

The Crux

With increasingly clear effects of global climate change, everyone’s thinking about how we will handle extreme temperatures and weather events as they become more common. Less obvious is the fact that the changing climate is also rearranging global food webs, with many species readjusting in the fact of a new range of temperatures. This might not sound fantastic (and let’s face it, it’s not), but this changing climate may be able to teach us something about how species adapt to higher or lower temperatures.

Temperature plays a key role in determining whether an invasive species can take up residence in a new region. We know that low temperatures can be particularly limiting to newly-invasive species, especially insects and spiders. Yet few studies look at how lower temperature in a new environment can affect the survival, development, and behavior of new invaders.

We tested whether invasive widow spiders from a warm climate (Australia) adapted over generations to the lower temperatures of their invaded habitat in Japan. The move to Japan should require adapting to lower temperatures, but it might not, for a few reasons. Spiders from both locations may be equally good at coping with cooler or warmer temperatures, or, since urban areas are typically warmer than natural habitats, organisms that move between urban habitats might avoid facing the low temperature constraints.

Did You Know: Cities as Heat Islands

It’s hot in cities! One reason for this is the urban heat island effect, where urban areas are several degrees hotter than surrounding natural areas because of all of the heat-absorbing surfaces like roads and buildings. More than half of the human population lives in cities, and as they heat up, it is especially important to understand how some species adapt and even do better in urban environments. Urbanization and climate change can also increase the spread of invasive species. For example, some urban-adapted invasive species thrive in urban habitats that would otherwise be too cold for them to survive and reproduce in. Understanding how urbanization, climate change, and invasions interact can help us predict changes in biodiversity and species distributions in the future.

What We Did

The Australian redback spider, Latrodectus hasselti, is an invasive species of widow spider, native to Australia. Redback spiders are well-known in Australia for their bite and neurotoxic venom. Redbacks have been transported (likely accidentally along with used cars or produce) to Japan, New Zealand, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, and India. We compared traits across native and invasive-habitat temperatures in a native population of spiders. The native spiders were collected from Sydney, Australia and the invasive population from Osaka, Japan, where redbacks became established in 1995.

Adult female Australian redback spider, Latrodectus hasselti (Image Credit: Sean McCann, CC BY 2.0)

We reared the spiders in the lab for three generations. We first checked for population differences in how spiders responded to extreme temperatures, measuring the lowest and highest temperatures at which spiders were able to maintain normal activity.

Next, we investigated how spiders respond to more moderate temperature differences, such as those in autumn, right before overwintering. When female spiders from each population produced egg sacs, we put the egg sacs for two weeks in either Japan-typical (15 degrees Celsius) or Australia-typical (25 degrees) autumn temperatures, then put all egg sacs at 25 degrees until spiderlings emerged. We predicted that the invasive spiders from Japan would be better adapted to low temperatures than the native Australian population, as they’re used to colder temperatures. We also measured hatching success, development time, and body size.

Once the spiderlings were juveniles, we measured behavioural traits that may be important for survival in nature: boldness – how quickly a spider resumed movement after a simulated predator threat (a puff of air), and exploration – building a web in a new environment.

What We Found

At extreme high temperatures, spiders from each population were similarly tolerant, with females able to move at temperatures of up to 55 degrees Celsius! Surprisingly, males from the invasive population from Japan were less tolerant of extreme low temperatures, suggesting that they may not overwinter successfully in colder regions. Egg sacs from the Japanese population hatched equally well at low and high temperatures, but egg sacs from the Australian population failed to hatch more often at low temperatures. Native spiders also took longer to emerge from the egg sacs than invasive spiders at low temperatures, which could expose egg sacs to more predation risk.

The Japanese population was bolder and more exploratory at low temperatures, but less bold and less exploratory at high temperatures, whereas the native population was similarly bold and exploratory at both temperatures.


Spiders from Japan, which live in cooler habitats, developed at both low and high temperatures, compared to a native population, which hatched less and developed more slowly when exposed to low temperatures. This study only tested one invasive and one native population, and it would be worthwhile to compare multiple invasive populations from both cooler and warmer habitats, as well as multiple native populations across Australia.

Although the invasive habitat in Japan is more extreme in temperature, spiders also live in more urbanized habitats compared to the native population. Urban habitats are hotter, and we would like to measure what conditions the animals are directly experiencing in the urban and natural habitats, to find out if spiders are able to colonize cooler climates because they thrive in urban heat islands habitats.

So What?

Some organisms may be better equipped to deal with changes we are facing with urbanization, habitat fragmentation, and climate change. In the case of Australian redback spiders, within twenty years, we found that an invasive population changed significantly in traits related to thermal performance, which may give them an advantage as temperatures change worldwide.

Behavioral traits are studied less frequently; finding increased variability in an invasive population may provide a clue to how the species can thrive in different environments. Understanding how organisms can establish and spread in environments different from their native ranges can help us predict which species will survive in our increasingly urbanized, changing world.

Dr. Monica Mowery is a Zuckerman STEM postdoctoral fellow in the labs of Yael Lubin and Michal Segoli at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. She received a B.S. in biology and community health at Tufts University, working on butterfly visual signals and behaviour in Sara Lewis’ lab. Her PhD was conducted in the labs of Maydianne Andrade and Andrew Mason at the University of Toronto Scarborough, where she studied invasion success in widow spiders. You can read more about Monica’s work at her website.

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