Wasp spiders won’t let their sisters eat them after sex

By Ed Yong | April 21, 2010 8:00 am

Argiope_bruennichiFor some animals, sex involves the ultimate sacrifice. Some species of spider, for example, redefine the concept of a dangerous liaison when the female turns around and devours her mate in a post-coital attack of the munchies. For males, it’s important that this act of sexual cannibalism isn’t in vain and that they die while impregnating the best possible mate. And for the wasp spider Argiope bruennichi, that means no sisters allowed.

Klaas Welke and Jutta Schneider from Hamburg’s Zoological Institute found that male wasp spiders are more likely to succumb to their grisly fate if they have just mated with an unrelated female than a sibling. Doing so allows them to avoid the heavy costs of inbreeding, where two copies of the same harmful or faulty genes have a high chance of ending up in the same individual. That’s bad news and both sexes do their best to avoid it, but for these spiders, the female holds all the cards.

She can mate with multiple partners and she can even control whose sperm actually fertilises her eggs. So the male must do everything he can in order to ensure that his genes pass on to the next generation. His job is even more difficult because he can only ever mate twice in his life. He has a pair of sexual organs – pedipalps – and each has only one use.  And of course, his mate invariably attacks him after sex with murderous intent. Around 80% of sexual encounters end with the male becoming a meal and even if he survives his first time, the second time will kill him.

The male’s chances of living to mate again depend entirely on how long he lasts during his virgin encounter. If he jumps off the female within the first five seconds, he has a shot at survival. If he hangs around for more than ten seconds, he will almost certainly die. The trouble is that the longer he sticks around, the more sperm he can pump into the female and the greater his odds of fathering the next generation. It’s a tricky dilemma – with only two chances at mating, he should only make the choice to stay, inseminate and die if his mate is worth the trouble.

And according to Welke and Schneider, that’s exactly what happens. They found that males escaped being eaten almost half of the time (47%) if they were mating with their sisters, but just a fifth of the time (22%) if they mated with an unrelated female. This was directly related to the length of their flings – when they had sex with sisters, they left after 5.8 seconds but they kept at it for 9 seconds when it came to unrelated females.

Of course, it’s possible that this represents a choice on the part of the female – perhaps she cuts the male off early if he’s a relative. However, Welke and Schneider think that this is unlikely because females will attack any male regardless of how closely related he is. They get their say by choosing to mate with another male if they wish. The decision to end sex early appears to be the will of the male.

But why should a male mate with their sister at all, if she’s such an undesirably partner? The duo suggests that males lead precarious lives anyway, and the longer they spend searching for a mate, the greater their odds of dying before becoming fathers. So high is this risk that they’ll accept even undesirable mating opportunities; they’ll just try to move on to better things without getting eaten first.

Reference: Biology Letters http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rsbl.2010.0214

A gallery of incredible spiders


Comments (9)

  1. Ezee-T

    Yeesh!!! It’s hard out here for a pimp!!!

  2. Julie

    There are so many comments running through my mind, but I think Ezee-T summed it up the most eloquently.

  3. Nathan Myers

    Here’s hoping Ed slips through that Heathrow window before it drops shut again.

  4. Brian Too

    What’s angrier than a wasp?

    What’s more dangerous than a spider?

    It’s the Wasp Spider! Which is only subordinate in lethality to the Snake Wasp Spider!

  5. Rich

    I feel there’s some iffy logic going on here. A missing piece of the puzzle is: when he mates with a sister does this use up one of his one-shot pedipalps or not? If not then his premature termination makes some sense. Then we might conclude that at 5.8 seconds he recognizes sister Suzy spider and hops off to find a non-relative. But if that’s his one-shot shot then the strategy is meaningless. He failed at the moment he picked the wrong partner.

    Another bit of information that might help is whether there’s a benefit to him in being eaten in terms of supporting his own offspring indirectly. Then improving his survival chances first time he pops his palps makes sense but not so much the second time.

    I often find myself marveling at the facts that biologists turn up while looking askance at the interpretations they build on them.

  6. Chris M.

    @Rich, in mantises, getting eaten definitely improves fertilization, which suggests that the large meal might prompt the female to fertilize her eggs immediately given that she now has researves. Extremely difficult to pick apart from the fact that the mating lasts longer, however, since the two are so closely intertwined! Running a study to test fertilization time versus meal time would provide some evidence on that, but again, very difficult.

    As for the pedipalps, I’m reasonably sure that “he can ever only mate twice in his life” strongly implies that it uses up one of his pedipalps regardless of duration. Having two shots, though, is critical. He’s extremely unlikely to even have the chance to find more than two mates (given the remarkably low survival rate of each mating, and searching), so the limited number of tries has surprisingly low relevance. Still, that possible second mate means attempting not to die is worthwhile if the first try is a less-optimal mating. Would love to see the stats on second mating attempts, those are probably even more likely to result in death, although basic self-preservation mechanisms developed to potentially survive the first might carry over.

  7. Briana

    This is probably the stupidest question ever, but how do the males know its a sister? It’s kind of critical to the question of why they mate at all with siblings. If they could tell from a distance, it would make sense that they were mating out of desperation, where if they didn’t know until the actual mating, it makes sense why they would leave early. Was this already established?

  8. Entirely good and well maintained web directory. If the positions your web site can at the moment submit your install to our directory for free. do gazu!

  9. Well, I don’t know if that’s likely to work with me, but definitely worked for you personally! Excellent post!


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Not Exactly Rocket Science

Dive into the awe-inspiring, beautiful and quirky world of science news with award-winning writer Ed Yong. No previous experience required.

See More

Collapse bottom bar