Feared around the world for their venomous bites, spiders represent a fascinatingly diverse family and most are harmless. Members of the class Arachnida, spiders are similar to insects but have eight legs and no antennae. Their closest relatives include scorpions, ticks and mites. About 38,000 spider species are known, but there are probably many more waiting to be discovered. Spiders breathe through book lungs or trachea, which are extremely narrow tubes running through their bodies.
Book Lungs of Spiders
How do spiders breathe? Some spider species breathe using one or two pairs of book lungs. Named for their resemblance to the pages of a book, book lungs contain layers of thin, soft, hollow plates called lamellae. These lamellae open to the air through slits on the spider's abdomen.
Hemolymph, which is the spider equivalent to blood, passes across the inner surface of the plates and exchanges oxygen and carbon dioxide with the atmosphere. Book lungs provide a large surface area for gas exchange, but there is no active breathing mechanism like a diaphragm in humans. Instead, air moves in and out of book lungs passively.
In large tarantulas the surface area is up to 70 centimeters (27.6 inches) square. The slit openings of book lungs can expand and contract but never fully close, so the myth that spiders can hold their breath to avoid breathing in pesticides is false. During periods of intense activity, spiders open their book lung slits wide. Spiders also open their book lungs wide when their oxygen levels are low.
Two of a Kind
Tarantulas breathe using two pairs of book lungs, but daddy longlegs and other spiders use only one pair. Members of the spider suborder Mesothelae and infraorder Mygalomorphae, which includes tarantulas, have two pairs of book lungs, and this is considered a feature of primitive spiders.
More recent species, such as daddy longlegs, orb weavers and wolf spiders possess only a single pair of book lungs. Orb weavers and wolf spiders also breathe through trachea that branch out from their book lungs throughout their bodies. Scientists agree that trachea are a later development in the evolutionary history of spiders.
Trachea for Breathing
Trachea are breathing structures that spiders and insects have in common. A network of narrow tubes lined with a hard substance called chitin, trachea extend the passage of air from book lungs in some spiders, and open directly to the surface through tiny holes called spiracles in others.
Spiders that don't have book lungs and breathe through trachea include members of the spider families Caponiidae and Symphytognathidae. Most spiders that breathe using only trachea have a single spiracle on the underside of their abdomen. Scientists have identified a specialized form of trachea in spiders called sieve trachea, which are numerous fine trachea extending from larger main trunks.
Do Spiders Have Blood?
Spiders transport oxygen around their bodies in hemolymph, a blue, blood-like substance. Oxygen diffuses across thin membranes in book lungs and trachea into hemolymph, which is blue because it contains a copper-based substance called hemocyanin.
Although spiders do not have specialized blood cells like red cells in humans, hemocyanin works in a similar way to red blood cells. Hemocyanin binds to oxygen and releases it in areas with low oxygen concentrations, and transports waste carbon dioxide to areas where it can diffuse out into the atmosphere. Spiders have a single-chambered, tubular heart, arteries and veins, but they do not have capillaries.
Spider hearts have valves to keep their hemolymph flowing in the same direction and to prevent it from flowing backward. When spiders are excessively active, muscle contractions cause hemolymph to move around the body, increasing the transportation of gases.
About the Author
A graduate of Leeds University, Jenny Green completed Master of Arts in English literature in 1998 and has been writing about science since 2007. Green's work appears in Synonym, Sciencing, and other websites and ezines