1. The distribution of the large orb-weaving spider Argiope trifasciata in old field habitats of North America and the habitat selection process this species used was studied for 2 years.
2. Because web spiders have limited dispersal abilities and an energetically costly prey capture device, they do not have the ability to sample potential foraging sites. Structural complexity of the vegetation to which the web must be attached is relatively easy to assess. The hypothesis that the structural complexity is a primary factor in determining initial web site selection was tested both by relating the natural distribution of the spiders across habitats to vegetational complexity and by manipulating the complexity of the habitats in a series of experiments.
3. Argiope trifasciata was not distributed evenly among three old field vegetation types. Habitat complexity was related to spider density in both years although no measure of insect activity, prey capture, or prey consumption was correlated with spider distribution.
4. Three experimental manipulations were conducted to test the impact of habitat structure on spider establishment: (1) the amount of natural vegetation was reduced, (2) structures were added to a simple habitat, and (3) the complexity of the structures added was varied. In each case, spiders were introduced and establishment of webs was monitored. In all manipulations, spider establishment was related to the complexity of the substrate available.
5. These results are important for understanding the cues that influence foraging site selection and therefore provide insight into the distribution of species with limited dispersal abilities and high site investment requirements.