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I am world building/culture building for a story that I'm writing and one of the races/sapient species is patterned after spiders. I'm willing to take a lot of liberties with the physiology (for example, structurally they resemble Trogloraptors and they have the size range of Shetland ponies), but I would like to base most of what I come up with on actual science.

My question is: how would spiders that size and that intelligent communicate, not just with each other, but with other sentient peoples? Most of what I've found so far (via Google) says that spiders can't hold their breath because of the way they breathe, and so wouldn't be able to speak. I've also read about spiders hissing (not sure if that's on purpose, though) and tapping (that does seem to be intentional).

At this point I'm thinking this race would use a lot of sign/body language to communicate, but I am still hoping for some sort of sounds to add as well.

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    $\begingroup$ Vernor Vinge's A Deepness In The Sky features giant, sentient, spider-like aliens. I don't recall if he went into detail about how they communicate, but it's worth a read; it's quite good. $\endgroup$ – Schwern May 7 '17 at 17:25
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    $\begingroup$ I highly recommend en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Children_of_Time_(novel) by Adrian Tchaikovsky $\endgroup$ – manassehkatz May 7 '17 at 19:55
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    $\begingroup$ Sorry, I cannot resist: SOME PIG $\endgroup$ – David K May 8 '17 at 1:06
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    $\begingroup$ Through chat. $\endgroup$ – Jason C May 8 '17 at 5:13
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    $\begingroup$ Wouldn't they use the Web? $\endgroup$ – sjl May 8 '17 at 7:39

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enter image description here from https://www.questacon.edu.au/outreach/programs/science-circus/activities/humming-hangers

If you wrap strings around your fingers and put them in your ears, you can hear transmitted vibrations from whatever the strings are attached to on the far side. On the web now I see all coat hangars but when I first learned about this it was with an oven rack. I have also used a chain link fence and a metal slinky. The slinky is amazing.

On desiring communication, the spiders would put a taut length of web between them and communicate by plucking notes, altering the tension of the string or its length (as one would do with a guitar string using the frets) to alter the notes. Humans could hear this communication too and could learn the language.

A quick one string could be for quick communications. More complex communications would require more.

I can imagine there might be a chamber with an enormous many stringed web used to communicate with many individuals at once, or for communal songs.

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    $\begingroup$ This is exactly the answer I came here to give. Vibrations in webs is how spiders communicate right now, it seems logical that they would extend upon that. $\endgroup$ – Tim B May 8 '17 at 8:38
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    $\begingroup$ +1 for no reason other than the image -- it really makes what you're trying to say clear. Okay, it probably would have been understandable without that, but still, the image was funny. $\endgroup$ – Nic Hartley May 8 '17 at 20:19
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Vibration is your most likely and realistic answer.

Spider physiology provides very sensitive hairs on all of their legs. These hairs are extremely sensitive to vibration - this is how web-building spiders can detect prey entangled in the webs. If you have ever watched a spider catching a fly or other bug you are in for a fascinating lesson in vibration.

If you toss some bugs (or small leaves or tiny pebbles) into spider webs, and watch where the spider is lying in wait, you will first see a leg or two poke out and touch or grasp the web (some spiders have small claws at the tips of their legs). They will just sit there for a while, listening or rather feeling for vibrations of struggling prey. If they feel nothing, they will actually jerk the web strands, inducing sway and vibration into the web.

Then they will sit there some more listening, err, feeling the dynamic movement of the web in order to tell if something has been added. If it is really light (leaf) they will usually ignore it, unless there is a breeze, and it is flapping around against the web. If it is not so light (a bug, tiny stick or pebble), then they will venture out and take a gander at it. If it looks promising, or looks like it has damaged the web, then they will carefully approach and web it or cut it free. Oddly enough, they will web up and drink a ball of spit....

Anyway.

If a spider is large enough, as yours seem to be, it would have to deal with the macro scale more than the micro scale, and it would be possible for more advanced forms of vibration sensing to come into play. For example, echolocation. Humans are (somewhat surprisingly) capable of learning echolocation, it would be rather less surprising in a biology devoted to sensing vibration.

If they could send out detectable pulses, rather than a passive sense, then they could communicate using a more complex version of Morse code.

Let's give a nod to click-speak used by Julie E. Czerneda's Ganthor (one of Esen's favorite races) and many other civilized species who lack the appropriate mouth (or other) parts necessary to produce sounds intelligible to each other. A percussive language best done with the clicking of hooves (and the occasional stamp for emphasis) which is somewhat simplistic in grammar, but more than enough for basic mercantile or mercenary exchange along with other important basics.

Music, the universal language... now featuring Spyyyyy-dar!

Personally, I really like the idea of using strands of web as string instruments and having a musical based language which was suggested elsewhere. My mind is already going Battle of the Bands where spiders use different forms of music to convey not only words and meaning, but emotions as well. Blues with a touch of hard rock for that melancholy laced with anger, and smooth jazz interspersed with some dubstep for political commentary.

You know, spiders would be really awesome at dubstep... just visualizing it is putting my imagination into overdrive.

Taste and Smell

It is also worth mentioning that a spiders sense of taste and smell is mostly located in the legs as well. Those hairs are very sensitive and multi-function. Should they be able to scent or leave tastes upon web stands, you could have a very interesting and complex form of non-verbal, non-symbol based communication.

Telepathy, no really, hear me out here

If you are willing to get creative with biology, an RFID-like pseudo-psionic ability to communicate is also theoretically possible.

It turns out that the network of blood vessels and cerebro-spinal fluid channels in the human brain actually function as a natural Faraday cage, blocking out external electromagnetic signals. It is theorized that some people, those who claim to hear voices or other signals with their brain have gaps in the natural Faraday cage, which allows external electromagnetic signals to stimulate neuron clusters, which give rise to anomalous brain activity which is interpreted by the person in question as psychic phenomena and so forth.

Quantum paired particles shared between people is also another proposed possible source of this.

In any case, should you be willing to get creative with biology, then a species of creatures with natural gaps in the sheathing around the brain, may actually be able to exchange recognizable signals between pairs of creatures who are close enough (about the range of an RFID tag), especially if they have developed actual signal transmitting organs.

Along with this idea, I should like to mention the excellent light novel Mother of Learning, which has some GIFTS as major characters in the story (Giant Intelligent Friendly Talking Spiders) who use more traditional psionics ala telepathy to communicate with those few humans capable of doing so. They have some interesting insights into what sentient spiders would be like, so worth a reference.

Visual communication

Web spinning sentients may also devise a written form of communication using their built in means: webs. A spider holding up a Cat's Cradle between it's forelegs may indicate a desire to talk, or perhaps a merchant with some interesting wares (pickled giant flies, anyone, fresh from the vat!)

And let us not forget Arthur C. Clark's (iirc) contribution: spiders with the ability to control the colors on their skin, who "talk" via bands of color.

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    $\begingroup$ The "octospiders" from the later books in the Rama series were the inspiration for my more detailed answer on this, but it is worth noting that there is a biological precedent for this. Some real spiders can change colour, and other colour-changing species have been known to use the ability for communication, so this is definitely a plausible avenue for evolution to explore. $\endgroup$ – Jules May 8 '17 at 7:43
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    $\begingroup$ Do you have a source for that "faraday cage" concept? It sounds implausible to me although I upvoted for the rest. $\endgroup$ – Tim B May 8 '17 at 8:40
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    $\begingroup$ This is brilliant! So many good ideas! I love the morse-code, cats-craddle, and spider-music the best! Thank you! (I'm not ready to use the Faraday idea with this race, but I might use it somewhere else) I'll have to check some of those books out, too! (which one is Arthur C. Clark's?) $\endgroup$ – z2a May 8 '17 at 14:13
  • $\begingroup$ On the subject of technological telepathy, that idea has been successfully tested in lab rats. Two rats were wired so that they transmitted sensory data to one another, and after one ran a maze, the other knew how to solve it. $\endgroup$ – KRyan May 8 '17 at 19:19
  • $\begingroup$ I have watched orb weavers detect vibrations on insects in their web. A European Garden spider sense it's an insect they do not want to deal with, for instance, a pill bug or a wasp, or something damaging their web by struggling too much, they will cut it loose and go back to lurking. $\endgroup$ – gwally May 8 '17 at 23:29
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Well from what I know of, you could have maybe 3 options.

  1. Lungs.

The reason why insects are so small is because of the way that they breathe, they have small holes in their body (called tracheae) and air diffuses into these holes and then goes into their blood.

As for spiders, see the following quote from the website: http://www.explorit.org/science/spider.html

Spiders have lungs. There are two sorts of lungs neither of which is like a human lung. Some spiders have book lungs. A book lung has a stack of soft plates called lamellae. Oxygen in the air passing between the lamellae diffuses through the tissue into the blood. Other spiders have tracheae which are breathing tubes held open by rings of chitin. The tracheae open to the outside and the opening is called a spiracle. There appears to be no active, muscular breathing mechanism. Air seems to pass in and out of the book lung or the tracheae in a passive manner.

So spiders can have air holes, but can also have rudimentary lungs that do not work in the way that our lungs work. -ALSO- This type of lung would absolutely not allow speech, as there is no movement of the lung involved, and in order for humans (and other animals) to produce sounds we have to force air out of our lungs, through our voiceboxes and out into the air, which is not possible with box lungs and tracheae without some major modifications.

However, if the spider was the size of a shetland pony, it would NEED efficient lungs in order to get enough oxygen into it's blood to survive. You may have heard of spiders in the long long past being huge, like size-of-your-head huge, and this was due to the incredibly high oxygen concentration in the air at the time (this also allowed other insects to be huge), but it is not the case in today's Earth (or likely where you are).

So, for the most scientific answer, either make the oxygen content of the world incredibly high (making all insects huge and likely stopping the evolution of humanoids long ago), or give the spiders efficient lungs (which would evolve if spiders becoming this large was necessary).

As a result of this, the spiders can have rudimentary voiceboxes, and produce and manipulate sound with their mandibles in order to produce a spider language (however it is not likely they would be able to speak English, it would sound more hissy/whistly).

  1. Rick and Morty

In the popular cartoon show Rick and Morty, there is an episode ("The Ricks Must Be Crazy", season 2 episode 6) where large (nearly as tall as humans when resting on all 8 legs) spiders have evolved or landed on Earth (I'm not too sure which) and communicate by telepathy.

There is no scientific grounding for this, but it would be an interesting one to explain, if I get the time I may try and think of something but for now, it isn't possible.

  1. The fun one.

An idea I just had, and would be very interesting to have - with some significant modifications the tracheae of modern-day spiders could potentially act like mini-lungs, here I'll explain.

So a tracheae is basically a tube that goes into the body of the spider, and allows oxygen to diffuse into the blood of the spider. IF surrounding this tracheae you had muscles and expanded the tracheae (pulling air in) you could have rudimentary lungs all over it's body.

Then, by using muscles to change the size and shape of the hole (the spiracle), it could potentially produce a sound.

Now, this is not a current evolution that spiders have, but if you have a spider the size of a small horse, there's either millions of years of evolution or they're aliens so pretty much anything is on the table.

This would give the effect of the whole body 'speaking' however it certainly wouldn't be a language even remotely close to English, it would sound closer to a humming or whistling coming out of it's whole body.

There are obviously more things you could do, but here are my 3 ideas, if I think of anything else I'll add it. Also, you would need ears - just so you know. Hopfully it was useful!

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  • $\begingroup$ I really like your idea for muscles around the breathing hole (spiracle)! I never thought of that, thank you! $\endgroup$ – z2a May 8 '17 at 14:03
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    $\begingroup$ I imagine the noise would be kind of like bagpipes. $\endgroup$ – Easy Tiger May 8 '17 at 14:30
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    $\begingroup$ It is worth noting that high atmospheric oxygen contents can be incredibly bad for a whole lot of things, but among them is a tendency for fires to start easily and become uncontrollable exceedingly quickly. $\endgroup$ – KRyan May 8 '17 at 19:35
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By rapidly changing colour patterns

Many spiders have chromataphores that enable them to change their pigmentation on demand, e.g. for camouflage while hunting. Other species that have this ability have been known to use it for communication, so it seems reasonable that a more intelligent species may refine it to a complete system of communication, perhaps along with an evolutionary process that allows them better control due to beneficial improvements in communication improving their fitness (do your spiders hunt in groups, perhaps?).

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Vibration patterns and silk markings.

Spiders use listening strings to know that prey has been captured. Even our spiders are smart enough to discern if wind has moved the net or if real prey is fighting for its life.

So intelligent spiders will have strings where visitors will introduce themselves by their vibration pattern and they will have perhaps delicate patterns inside their nets which visitors can use to talk publicly or with a specific neighbor.

Spiders are also known to have many different kind of webs. So they will be able to create messages themselves and leave them as signs or markings.

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EB White covered this topic extensively and the subject of Zuckerman's famous pig in his book Charlotte's Web.

A spider hoping to save the life of a pig named Wilbur, convinces a rat named Templeton to bring words and phrases she could add to her web in hopes of sending messages to the Zuckerman family to not eat Wilbur the pig. The spider demonstrated reason by rejecting words like "crunchy".

It's a series of stories for children, but it does show some forethought to what behaviors a talking orb weaver, most likely a European Garden Spider, would exhibit in their attempts to communicate with other species.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charlotte%27s_Web

Why I am I posting a children's story? Do I want to get downvoted?

No, but spiders use two forms of communication, vibration and webs. They use silk to line burrows, build trap doors, build pathways, collect insects, attract mates, fly (seriously) and they use vibrations to send signals.

Charlotte's Web is a very popular series of stories and I think it would be worthy of noting when attempting to figure out how spiders communicate because it's going to be in the back of people's minds when reading stories about giant spiders and their ability to communicate.

Charlotte`s Web

Humble

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Spiders exchange gases using book lungs, which mostly don't move; they don't have lung-like large bags of air that can pump breath through a vocal apparatus, so if your spider aliens are like Earth spiders in this regard, they shouldn't be able to speak (or hiss, or scream, etc.): they can't hold their breath and they cannot modulate it. From what I've read, the "hissing" some spiders do produce is actually made by the friction of their body hair.

Spiders' principal eyes can form rather accurate images (and in some spiders they actually have the ability to zoom in and out), so visual communication should not be a problem if you decide to go that way.

But if you ask me, communication based on detecting vibrations is the way to go. Speech sounds are of course vibrations traveling through air, but spiders don't have ears and I'm not sure how sensitive they are to human speech sounds (or the like). They are, however, extremely sensitive to vibrations such as those transmitted by solid, elastic materials. Tapping the ground or the nearest wall should work with a spider-like alien, as well as employing low-frequency airborne sounds.

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If you're willing to "take a lot of liberties with the physiology", then give them all the equipment (lungs, trachea, larynx, pharynx a tongue and dexterous lips) needed to speak. And ears to hear with.

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Sign Language
With their eight limbs a spider would have no problem using 2+ at a time to perform very complex signs or semaphore while still holding onto a web or standing/sitting on the ground.

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If they are intelligent, they could write on keyboards, or just like Stephen Hawking, we could make some kind of tool to work as gesture-to-speech.

In my personal opinion, though, I'd communicate with them would be with a 10-foot pole and lots of fire.

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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to WorldBuilding! This looks like you are answering the question about how such a spider would communicate with a human, but the question asks about the communication of the spiders among each other. You might want to edit your answer with the little grey "edit"-button at the end of your post. If you have a moment please take the tour and visit the help center to learn more about the site. Have fun! $\endgroup$ – Secespitus May 9 '17 at 13:10
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    $\begingroup$ @Secespitus "how would spiders that size and that intelligent communicate, not just with each other, but with other sentient peoples?" $\endgroup$ – Newwt May 9 '17 at 13:16
  • $\begingroup$ Fair enough. I read the question as someone trying to create a new world and wants natural communication among giant spiders that might potentially be understood naturally by another sentient species. Communication in this sense would have been an essential evolutionary factor that could not be overcome by applying current day technology, but I can see your point. $\endgroup$ – Secespitus May 9 '17 at 13:23
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    $\begingroup$ @Secespitus When I read the question, the first thing that came to mind were the Hanar from Mass Effect, who communicate with light pulses. As you say it, maybe "talking" communication wouldn't be necessary, just like we communicate with our dogs, for example. If you see your dog pointing his bent leg and barking, you know there's "something" in the direction your dog is looking. Otherwise, as you said, normal communication would have required thousands of years of evolution. $\endgroup$ – Newwt May 9 '17 at 14:17

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