Aggressive spiders more likely to survive hurricanes than docile counterparts

In an undated photo from Judy Gallagher/Wikipedia Commons, an anelosimus studisus spider at Everglades National Park in Florida. A new study suggests that spider colonies with more aggressive females are more likely to survive after a hurricane passes through. Judy Gallagher/Wikipedia Commons/New York Times

To the list of things we have learned to fear from hurricanes — high winds, storm surge, floating islands of fire ants — a new study in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution suggests that we should add another: aggressive spiders.

The study, which looked at more than 200 colonies over roughly a dozen places in the paths of hurricanes, found that more aggressive spiders were more likely to survive once a storm had passed.

Anelosimus studiosus is a type of communal living spider found along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts of Mexico and the United States. They are small, stretching slightly less than a quarter of an inch fully grown, and scientists like to study them because their colonies exhibit one of two distinct behaviors.

Some Anelosimus studiosus colonies are relatively docile, with multiple mothers rearing each other’s offspring, gathering food together and otherwise sharing the work necessary for survival. Other colonies, however, are more combative and feature a higher ratio of aggressive female spiders.

“Aggressive females are great at capturing prey,” said Jonathan N. Pruitt, an associate professor in the department of ecology, evolution and marine biology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and an author on the study. “They are really good at defending the colony from intrusion by other species of spiders.”

“But they can’t really seem to turn off their aggression,” he added. “So, sometimes they mistakenly kill their young, and sometimes they mistakenly maim one of their fellow colony members.”

Pruitt’s research suggests that filicidal spider colonies fare better after hurricanes.

He and his colleagues determined that hurricanes were shifting spider behavior after surveying colonies in regions that were hit by hurricanes immediately before, immediately after and then several months after storms struck. Right after a storm, the team found no significant shift in a colony’s behavior. But when the researchers went back months later, they found that of the colonies that remained, more of them were aggressive.

New York Times

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