A "Sadistic" Spider's Unusual Mating Habits Are Tough on the Female

By Eliza Strickland | April 30, 2009 4:24 pm

spider spikeMales of the spider species Harpactea sadistica have a violent way of increasing their odds of reproductive success. In the midst of a mating tussle, the male stabs his spiked copulatory organ (pictured) into the abdomen of the female, in order to deposit his sperm directly into the female’s ovaries.

This process, known as traumatic insemination, is common among many hermaphrodite species as well as some insects with separate sexes, most famously the bed bug. But it has never before been observed in other arthropods. “Now we have a very odd biological phenomenon in an unrelated taxonomic group…. It’s like finding a peacock’s tail in a non-bird species” [The Scientist], says Mike Siva-Jothy, who has observed the behavior in bed bugs.

In the study, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, the researchers explain that female spiders have a structure called a spermatheca that stores sperm until an egg is ready to be fertilized. Typically, male spiders insert their sperm into that receptacle. However, the spermatheca is a “last in, first out” structure, so that if any further males inseminate a female, the last mate’s sperm is the first in line to fertilise an egg [BBC News]. By bypassing the spermatheca all together, the H. sadistica male can ensure that his sperm gets to the egg, and won’t be bumped by later suitors. But the researchers did not try to determine how this unusual mating system affected the females.

Researchers note that the parallel evolution of this malevolent mating tactic in insects, arachnids, and other taxonomic groups shows that traumatic insemination is more than just an oddball zoological curiosity. Rather, it could be an important driving force in the evolution of mating systems across diverse taxonomic groups…. “It’s a dramatic male adaptation to sperm competition, basically” [The Scientist], says evolutionary biologist Goran Arnqvist, who was not involved in the current spider research.

Related Content:
80beats: Spider Ancestor Made Silk—Possibly Using it for Sex—But Couldn’t Spin a Web
80beats: Female Tarantulas Devour Extra Suitors to Benefit Their Young

Image: M. Rezac

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World
  • E Lushynn

    I am constantly annoyed by scientists (or their interpreters) who equate fortitous evolutionary devices with intent. Just because this particular reproductive design and behavior impart immediate reproductive advantage does not mean that “the H. sadistica male can ensure that his sperm gets to the egg”; inferring some kind of godlike sperm-navigating power. If the behavior is the reproducive standard in the species, then it is possible the female reproductive structures or behavior are also adapted to (or perhaps the driving force behind) the male process of insemination. The fact that the “researchers did not try to determine how this unusual mating system affected the females” is proof enough for me that this particular research effort was half…*cough*…baked.

  • andrew

    … “If the behavior is the reproducive standard in the species,” …

    If you remember, in the article it stated “Typically, male spiders insert their sperm into that receptacle.” (So this behaviour isn’t the standard, not for this spider species, and defintely not for the species in general).

    You go on…
    …”then it is possible the female reproductive structures or behavior are also adapted to (or perhaps the driving force behind) the male process of insemination.”

    From the article…
    “However, the spermatheca is a “last in, first out” structure, so that if any further males inseminate a female, the last mate’s sperm is the first in line to fertilise an egg”

    So, you’re correct, the female reproductive structure is one of (if not the main) causes for this strange sexually behavior.

    Are you sure you read the article?

  • andrew

    I like the occasional bout of rough sex, but this is ridiculous.

  • carmen

    so thats what the belly button is for.

  • http://bedbugs.bugkill.net/faqs.php Sara

    Looking forward to a follow up

  • Me

    Common name: Rape Spider.

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