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Tracing the evolutionary origin of a visual signal: the coincidence of wrap attack and web decorating behaviours in orb web spiders (Araneidae)

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The silk decorations that adorn the webs of many orb-web spiders are thought to have a signal function, but the evolution of the decorating behaviour remains unresolved. The decoration signal is maintained apparently because it improves foraging efficiency, through either increased encounter rates with prey or reduced damage to the web. Recent investigations suggest that the decorations may originate in a regulation of the activity of the aciniform silk glands, which produce silk for both decorating the web and wrapping prey. This view predicts a link between decorating behaviour and a preference for restraining prey by wrapping with silk, which is evident among species of Argiope spiders. Here I compare the frequency of the wrap attack behaviour in four species of orb-web spiders that occupy the same habitat, but differ in their silk decorating behaviour: two species, Plebs bradleyi and Gea theridioides, build silk decorations, while the other two, Araneus hamiltoni and Backobourkia brounii do not. Spiders were presented with prey items that varied in the ease with which they could be captured, with houseflies being more easily subdued than house crickets. As predicted, the silk decorating species used wrap attacks significantly more often than non-decorating spiders, irrespective of the prey species. These data support the view that both behaviours are evolutionary linked. I propose that silk decorating originated from the evolution of wrap attacking, and that silken web decorations have later evolved into a signal and are now maintained for that function.

Original languageEnglish
JournalEvolutionary Ecology
Pages (from-to)159-170
Number of pages12
Publication statusPublished - 2018

    Research areas

  • Orb web spiders, Signal evolution, Web decoration, Wrap attack

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