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How jumping spiders became the new ‘it’ pets: 'They're kind of like little robots'

Posted at 8:44 AM, Mar 26, 2023

Many lovers of spiders profess a lifelong fascination with all things creepy crawly. Heather Bruen's affinity for spiders was borne out of necessity.

At first she couldn't stand them -- their creepy eight-legged walk-and-stalk, that haunting gaze and garish, hairy body. Butliving in Florida, where the regal jumping spider is native and abundant, she had no choice but to tolerate their presence.

Tolerance turned to acceptance, and "accidentally befriending" one of those minuscule, wide-eyed wonders softened her heart. And when she started sharing clips of her new loves on TikTok, she found that unassuming viewers were eager to fall in love with them, too.

"Maybe it's because they're these tiny sentient little creatures existing in this huge world around us, and we don't even take the time to notice them or how smart they are," she told CNN. "But caring for them has changed my entire life."

Often fitting comfortably on their owners' fingertips, the diminutive jumping spiders have developed a reputation as a charming and curious pet. They'll wave a fuzzy arm toward a camera, tilt their heads at their owners like a dog who hears a high-pitched tone might and, true to their name, leap with impressive speed and height. It's a recipe for adorable, eight-legged magic -- and massive TikTok engagement.

The hashtags #jumpingspider and #spidertok have more than 1.5 billion views combined. Millions of users, most of them relative newcomers to the wonderful world of spiders, have fawned over clips of jumping spiders dancing around their reflections in a mirror or peering up at their owners, appearing to ask for a lift. The spider fervor has birthed a cottage industry of deluxe spider habitats, from hollow walnut shells to regal glass towers. And the exposure to spiders is curing some viewers of their arachnophobia -- and inspiring them to give the petite pets a chance.

Jumping spiders have taken off on TikTok, charming even the most spider-averse viewers and convincing some to adopt the spiders themselves.

Jumping spiders are intelligent, entertaining pets

Nate Morehouse, a visual ecologist and associate professor at the University of Cincinnati, has long been fascinated by the diminutive jumping spider. And if his work on the intelligence of jumping spiders is any indication, they're worthy of the hype.

"They're kind of like little robots," Morehouse told CNN.

One of their most immediately endearing characteristics are their massive eyes, reminiscent of the bug-eyed darling Grogu of "The Mandalorian."

"We're suckers for that," Morehouse said of their eyes. "There's a cute babyish-ness."

Those saucer eyes aren't just instant heart-melters: Jumping spiders have some of the best vision among all arachnids, Morehouse said. Their eight eyes -- four in front, two on top and two that point behind them -- are capable of seeing fine details and colors. Some jumping spiders' visual acuity may even surpass that of humans, he said.

Their impressive vision suggests that they're deceptively brilliant creatures.

"When animals can see farther away from their bodies, and they can act right away, that offers the capacity for planning," Morehouse said. "Lots of animals can only see and sense the world in their immediate surroundings -- a lot of what they do is knee-jerk reactions to things."

But the humble jumping spider, meanwhile, is capable of making more complex decisions, Morehouse said. Because these spiders can see more of their world, they can decide between several potential routes and take note of potential food sources (the latter is especially important, since they can't spin webs to ensnare prey).

Even major arachnophobes might be able to stomach their size -- jumping spiders are usually not longer than an inch. They rarely bite humans, Morehouse said, and don't pose a risk to their human caretakers. And while they're not the best snugglers, they're often vividly hued -- a helpful characteristic when it comes to assessing potential mates, since their color vision is so strong.

"They live incredible, even magical lives," Morehouse said.

TikTok is converting users into spider lovers

True, they're not as playful as a puppy or as snuggly as cats can be, when they're feeling friendly. But owning a jumping spider can be rewarding in different ways, owners told CNN.

Danae Wolfe, a photographer and conservationist who shares regular updates of her jumping spider brood on TikTok with more than200,000 followers, didn't fall for the crawlers until she started capturing them on camera. Examining them up close, Wolfe was finally attuned to their "personalities and peculiarities."

"While spiders might not form the same types of bonds with their humans as cats or dogs, I'd like to think that they might be able to recognize people and that people can earn their trust and perhaps even their love, whatever love might mean in a spider's world," Wolfe told CNN.

She started with two, Rosie and Rosco, in 2020 and has had 15 spiders in total. There are currently seven in her care. Most of them are regal jumping spiders, one of the most common jumping spiders in the US, but one of them, Fraser, is a peppered jumper that Wolfe found perched in a Christmas tree.

Almost daily, Wolfe said, viewers tell her that her pets have helped them overcome their fear of spiders.

Hers is one of countless accounts that have fascinated TikTok users who may have previously swatted at or cowered from the misunderstood arachnids. She shares videos of her spiders gentlygrooming their fangswith their hairy front legs, wrestling mealworms and waving at Wolfe as she films them. Seeing spiders be silly or stunning only endears them more to users, Wolfe said.

Jumping spiders are only the latest variety of spider to captivate pet owners with unusual taste: Tarantulas have long been a popular, if polarizing, pet, though unregulated online sales of tarantulas have put several endangered or threatened species at risk, per a 2022 study in the journal "Communications Biology." Jumping spiders sold in the US are typically bred from regal jumping spiders, which aren't thought to be at risk in the wild, Morehouse said.

Bruen used to worry about having too many jumping spider babies on her hands -- she started breeding spiders after moving from Florida to New Jersey and bringing her eight-legged pets along. Now she sells jumping spiders and struggles to respond to all the prospective spider owners who flood her inbox. Many of her customers are first-time spider owners, she said.

"I've converted tons of people," she said. "The one spider turns into several more because they enjoy it so much."

Loving and losing jumping spiders

As any pet owner knows, heartbreak is inevitable when an animal's life ends. That loss comes even sooner for jumping spider owners -- the arachnids only live one or two years on average.

Wolfe has buried many jumping spiders in her lifetime, but it never seems to get easier, she said. So she's developed a ritual for them, preparing caskets made from acorns found in her front yard.

Chai, her last spider to die, lived for a year and a half. Wolfe found an acorn big enough to fit Chai's body and filled it with bedding for her to rest gently. Once Chai was snug inside, Wolfe topped the acorn with its cap and buried it underneath an oak tree in her garden.

Chai was a beloved member of her family, a grayish-white spider with short tufts of black hair that sat like a crown on top of her head. Her fangs were an iridescent aquamarine (Wolfe compared them to mermaid fins).

"I believe that returning them to earth is the kindest way of processing their loss and thanking them for the wonderful memories they provided to our family and to the world," Wolfe said.

Jumping spiders' popularity can help all spiders

For as popular as they've become, jumping spiders still hold some secrets. Scientists aren't sure how many jumping spiders there are in the world, though they've been spotted on every continent except Antarctica, Morehouse said. Arachnologists are still discovering new species of jumping spiders, and there are likely more yet to be found. So TikTok is learning along with spider owners and scientists, even, about these beautiful, bizarre creatures.

Entertainment aside, prolonged exposure to clips of jumping spiders adorably existing could improve the reputations of all spiders, Morehouse said.

"Spiders are essential members of the world that we move through," he said. (In fact, as research shows, spiders are great at providing free pest control.)

If TikTok's ambassador, the jumping spider, inspires viewers to relocate the creatures they find inside their home rather than flush them down the toilet, Morehouse said, that's a victory for spiders everywhere.