Purpose: In this activity, students will read an article about how jumping spiders use their senses and discuss how the writer conveyed that information. Students will then research the senses of another species and write creatively about how the animal uses its senses to interact with the world.

Procedural overview:  For homework before starting the activity, students will read and summarize the Science News article“Jumping spiders’ remarkable senses capture a world beyond our perception.” During the first class period, lead a class discussion of the author’s use of literary devices to engage readers and convey scientific concepts. Then, students will choose another animal and research its senses. Finally, students will use the information gathered to write creatively about how their chosen animal uses its senses to interact with its environment. Writing could be done for homework after the first class period or during the second class period.

Approximate class time: 1 or 2 class periods

Supplies:

Paper

Pencils

Background information sheet

Student worksheet

An internet-connected device such as a computer or cell phone

Interactive meeting and screen-sharing application for virtual learning (optional)

Want to make it a virtual lesson? This activity can be done virtually using interactive meeting software. Post the student worksheet to your virtual learning platform. Students can submit completed assignments electronically.

Directions for teachers:

The setup

For homework before starting this activity, have students read the background information sheet on literary devices and creative writing, as well as the online Science News article “Jumping spiders’ remarkable senses capture a world beyond our perception.” A version of the article, “,” appears in the November 6, 2021 issue of Science News.

Students should then answer the following questions. For students who need help summarizing, point them to the Science News in High Schools resource “How to write a summary.” Student answers will vary. Sample answers are provided below.

1. What is the main point of the article?

Jumping spiders have unique sensing abilities that influence how they experience the world — whether it’s catching prey, avoiding predators or courting and mating.

Thanks to new technology and innovative experiments, scientists are gaining a better understanding of the roles these senses play in spider behavior.  

2. What details does the author provide to support the main point? Identify at least three supporting ideas or details.

Jumping spiders have eight camera-like eyes, each with a single lens that focuses light onto a retina. Two forward-facing principal eyes in the center are the largest and have high resolution. Those eyes each see a narrow, boomerang-shaped strip that together forms an X shape. Because spiders see in high-resolution color at the center of this X, the primary eyes are used to focus on prey, predators and other important objects. The other six eyes perceive only black and white. These eyes let the spider see nearly 360 degrees and are used to scan the spider’s surroundings for movement.

The spider’s narrow range of high-resolution color vision affects how males perform courtship dances. The males must move to catch the female’s attention. When she has focused her principal eyes on him, he must then move his brightly colored legs so that the colors show up in the center of her field of vision. Male spiders use their dances to make vibrations to communicate with the female spider. Jumping spiders also have chemical sensors at the tips of their legs. New research suggests that male spiders use the sensors to “taste” traces of other spiders.

3. Use your answers to the previous questions to write a three-paragraph summary of the article for other students in your class.

Jumping spiders have unique sensing abilities that influence how they experience the world — whether it’s catching prey, avoiding predators or courting and mating.

Thanks to new technology and innovative experiments, scientists are gaining a better understanding of the roles these senses play in spider behavior.  

Jumping spiders have eight camera-like eyes, each with a single lens that focuses light onto a retina. Two forward-facing principal eyes in the center are the largest and have high resolution. Those eyes each see a narrow, boomerang-shaped strip that together forms an X shape. Because spiders see in high-resolution color at the center of this X, the primary eyes are used to focus on prey, predators and other important objects. The other six eyes perceive only black and white. These eyes let the spider see nearly 360 degrees and are used to scan the spider’s surroundings for movement.

The spider’s narrow range of high-resolution color vision affects how males perform courtship dances. The males must move to catch the female’s attention. When she has focused her principal eyes on him, he must then move his brightly colored legs so that the colors show up in the center of her field of vision. Male spiders use their dances to make vibrations to communicate with the female spider. Jumping spiders also have chemical sensors at the tips of their legs. New research suggests that male spiders use the sensors to “taste” traces of other spiders.

4. What literary devices did the author use in the article? For each literary device you identify, provide an example from the article.

The author uses imagery, anthropomorphism, simile, allusion and humor.

Examples of imagery can be found in the opening paragraphs. The author describes a “grayscape” with “blades of grass the size of redwood trees” and “an X-shaped splash of color.”

An example of a simile can be found in the second paragraph. The author compares the jumping spider’s view as being “like watching a … black-and-white move on a 3-D IMAX screen that wraps around the room.”

The subtitle “Eye of the spider” is a subtle allusion to the 1982 song “Eye of the Tiger” by the band Survivor. Katy Perry’s 2013 song “Roar” references this older song.

The author uses humor in a sentence that describes the eyes on the sides of the spiders’ heads as “eyes that any human parent would envy. They let the spider monitor what’s happening behind it…”

When describing the courtship dance of Habronattus pyrrithrix, the author combines imagery, simile and humor in a way that results in the personification and anthropomorphism of the male spider.

Another example of anthropomorphism can be found in the article’s final sentence: “That spider might just be imagining what the world looks like to a human.

Class discussion
Use students’ homework and the following prompt to guide a short class discussion about how the author used literary devices to construct an engaging and entertaining article about jumping spiders’ eyesight. Students should be encouraged to take notes during the class discussion.

1. How did the author’s use of literary devices improve your understanding of complex concepts about the vision of jumping spiders?

I was immediately hooked by the description of what a jumping spider sees, and I was able to visualize it. The use of humor and of comparisons to familiar experiences kept me engaged and helped me make connections to my personal experiences. The author also used descriptive language and imagery that made the concepts easy to understand.

Independent research

Inform students that they will be writing creatively about how an animal perceives the world. Students will select an animal that interests them and will use the following questions to guide their research into how the organism uses its senses. Student answers will vary. Sample answers are provided below.

1. What animal will you research and write about?

I will write about a house cat.

2. What do you already know about this animal, their habits and their senses? Make a claim about the animal and support your claim with evidence and reasoning.

House cats are small predators that rely on their vision and their whiskers to hunt in the dark. Cats are most active at dawn and dusk. Cats’ eyes are positioned at the front of their head, which gives them binocular vision and good depth perception. Cats have vertical pupils, which, when combined with the opening and closing of their eyelids, allow cats to precisely control the amount of light they let into their eyes. As a result, cats are good at estimating their prey’s distance and focusing on their target. Cats also have whiskers that allow them to sense vibrations in the air and estimate distances and sizes of objects.

3. How does this animal sense the world? Conduct research about the animal you chose. Use internet resources, including the Science News and Science News for Students archive, to find information about your animal. Find and record at least three reliable resources.

Cats use sight, hearing, smell, touch and taste to sense the world. Cats do not see vibrant colors, and they don’t see very well when things are very close or are more than a few feet away. However, they have adaptations that allow them to sense motion, and they have a reflective tissue in their eye that enables them to see well in low-intensity light, like at dawn and dusk. Cats can hear very well and can rotate their ears 180 degrees to capture sound. Cats have a very good sense of smell, with more than 200 million olfactory sensors in their noses. Cats also have an extra organ called the Jacobson’s organ on the roof of their mouth that helps them smell. Cats have a weak sense of taste since they have about 470 taste buds. Cats are very sensitive to touch — foot pads sense temperature and texture, and whiskers are connected to many blood vessels and nerves. These special hairs pick up vibrations in the air and send signals to the cat’s brain about their surroundings. The ends of whiskers also have special cells called proprioceptors that send signals to the cat’s brain about the position of the cat’s body and limbs in space. These cells help cats balance, make precise motions when leaping and running and reorient their bodies when they fall so that they can land on their feet.

The sources I used are Cat Senses: How Felines Perceive the World from PawsChicago, A Cat’s Five Senses from Texas A&M University, Why Do Cats Have Whiskers from VCA Hospitals, Why Do Cats Have Whiskers from FETCH by WebMD and Do Cats See Color from VCA Hospitals.

4. What is the animal’s primary sense, or what sense is most interesting to you?

Cats’ primary sense is smell, but I am more interested in how they use their whiskers.

5. How does the animal’s primary sense compare to the same sense in humans?

A cat’s sense of smell much better than a human’s. Cats have about 40 times as many odor-sensitive cells in their noses as humans do. A cat’s sense of touch is much more acute than that of humans. Whiskers are sometimes likened to human fingertips but are likely even more sensitive: the hairs can sense vibrations in the air, changes in air currents and even falling dust.

6. What environment does your animal live in?

Cats can live in a wide variety of habitats, including in jungles, the Arctic circle, and urban and suburban neighborhoods.

7. How do the animal’s senses relate to its habitat and lifestyle?

Cats are predators that hunt at dawn and dusk. Their eyes are adapted so that the cats’ eyesight is best when it is hunting in low-light conditions. Their senses of smell and hearing help them identify the presence, type and location of prey; their whiskers help cats navigate high, narrow and tight spaces and make precise leaps to capture prey.

8. Do the animal’s senses change as it moves through different stages of its life?

When kittens are born, their eyes and ears are closed, and they cannot see or hear. Their sense of touch is the primary way they experience the world. Kittens’ eyes and ears open when the kittens are between five and 15 days old. They can follow visual stimuli when they are about three weeks old. Within a few more weeks, kittens are alert, and their eyesight and hearing improve, as does their balance and their sense of touch. By the time kittens are about six months old, their senses are fully developed. As cats age, however, their senses may decline. Elderly cats can lose their vision, hearing, smell and sense of balance.

Planning a writing project

After students have completed their research, have them plan a creative writing project using the following questions. Student answers will vary. Sample answers are provided below.

1. What form of creative writing will you use to tell your story? Some forms of creative writing include fictional narratives, poetry, scripts, song lyrics and nonfiction essays or reports.

I will write a poem.

2. What are the key characteristics of that form of writing? If necessary, you can research your chosen form of creative writing using Lexico, the Purdue Online Writing Lab or another source.

Elements of poetry include descriptive imagery, figurative language, diction, form, cadence, meter and rhyme. Auditory and visual patterns — such as the number of syllables per line, punctuation or indention — create a rhythm that enhances the reader or listener’s experience of the poem.

3. What is the primary topic of your piece, and what supporting details will you include?

My poem will be about how cats use their whiskers when they hunt in the dark. Cats’ whiskers are specialized hairs that sense vibrations of the air and allow them to recognize objects that they can’t see well; they provide sensory input about the cat’s surroundings, including prey. Cats’ whiskers also contain special cells called proprioceptors that send messages to the cat’s brain about the position of its body and limbs.

4. Will you write in the first, second or third person?

I will write my poem in the third person, as if I am observing the cat.

5. Who is the audience for your piece?

I will write my poem for people of any age who are interested in cats.

6. How long will your piece be?

I will write a short poem, between 10 and 20 lines.

7. What period will the piece cover? You could choose to describe a second, a minute, an hour, a day, a week, a month, a year or a lifetime.

My poem will describe only a few minutes in the cat’s life.

8. What literary device(s) will you include to make your piece engaging or to deepen the reader’s understanding of the topic?

I will use metaphor and imagery to describe the cat’s whiskers and actions. I will use suspense to keep the reader engaged.

Creative writing

After students have planned their writing assignment, have them write using the information they gathered. Unfinished pieces can be completed at home and submitted during the next class. Student answers will vary. A sample answer is given below.

Whiskers

Forehead, chin, upper lip

Radar hairs, whisper fine

twitching, sensing

silent alarm—

Prey!

Pause and wait

inch closer, closer

pause again

size, shape and speed detected—

Mouse.

Tight space, no room to err

wiggle backside, muscles poised

leap and land

precision pounce—

CRUNCH!

Possible extension: If students are interested in pursuing more creative writing projects, they can choose a different animal, a different type of writing or a different point of view for their supplemental work.

Additional resources

Science News articles:

S. Milius. “Some animals ‘see’ the world through oddball eyes.” Science News. Published online May 18, 2016.

S. Schwartz. “Power of pupils is in their shape.” Science News. Published online August 7, 2015.

S. Milius. “Fly fossils might challenge the idea of ancient trilobites’ crystal eyes.” Science News. Published online August 30, 2019.

L. Hamers. “Scallops’ amazing eyes use millions of tiny, square crystals to see.” Science News. Published online November 30, 2017.

Other resources:

Lisa Hendry. “How do other animals see the world?” Natural History Museum (UK) Jennifer

Levine. “5 things you didn’t know about how animals see color.” Cell Mentor. Published online January 18, 2017.

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