Young jumping spiders dangle by a thread through the night, in a box, in a lab. Every so often, their legs curl and their spinnerets twitch — and the retinas of their eyes, visible through their translucent exoskeletons, shift back and forth.
“What these spiders are doing seems to be resembling — very closely — REM sleep,” says Daniela Rößler, a behavioral ecologist at the University of Konstanz in Germany. During REM (which stands for rapid eye movement), a sleeping animal’s eyes dart about unpredictably, among other features.
In people, REM is when most dreaming happens, particularly the most vivid dreams. Which leads to an intriguing question. If spiders have REM sleep, might dreams also unfold in their poppy-seed-size brains?
Rößler and her colleagues reported on the retina-swiveling spiders in 2022. Training cameras on 34 spiders, they found that the creatures had brief REM-like spells about every 17 minutes. The eye-darting behavior was specific to these bouts: It didn’t happen at times in the night when the jumping spiders stirred, stretched, readjusted their silk lines or cleaned themselves with a brush of a leg.
Though the spiders are motionless in the run-up to these REM-like bouts, the team hasn’t yet proved that they are sleeping. But if it turns out that they are — and if what looks like REM really is REM — dreaming is a distinct possibility, Rößler says. She finds it easy to imagine that jumping spiders, as highly visual animals, might benefit from dreams as a way to process information they took in during the day. [Continue reading…]