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Lady Wolf Spiders Use Silk to Flirt

Counter to the common wisdom, it’s not just males that do the pursuing

Who wouldn't love that face? (Joe McDonald/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

Since Charles Darwin, ecologists have thought about courtship in basically the same way—"males courting and females choosing amongst the males," as arachnologist Matthew Persons tells National Geographic. Male birds of paradise flash their fancy feathers; male elephant seals chest-slam for control of territory. And so on.

But Persons' research offers a counter example. In a recent paper, titled, "Are you Paying Attention? Female Wolf Spiders Increase Dragline Silk Advertisements When Males do not Court," he explains how female wolf spiders take flirting matters into their own, er, ducts.

In his lab, Persons observed female Pardosa milvina wolf spiders for half-hour periods as they hung out with a male wolf spider that was being very flirtatious, a male that wasn't coming on strong or at all or a control situation—other female silk, or no stimulus at all. The spiders deposited their own silk onto grid paper, allowing the researchers to quantify just how much thread they produced in each situation. In the presence of an uninterested male, the female spiders produced the most dragline silk.

The reason for the showy threads might be to make previously uninterested males to take notice—male wolf spiders flirt more intensly when they are around female silk. "Mating in these thin-legged wolf spiders could be more akin to a dialogue between partners rather than a take-it or leave-it choice for the females," explains National Geographic. And, really, it's not just lady spiders who are going after what they want—maybe more ecologists should start re-thinking how they understand courtship across all species, including humans.

About Shannon Palus

Shannon Palus is a science writer, and a researcher for Popular Science. Her work has appeared in Discover, Slate, Ars Technica, and elsewhere. She is based in Philadelphia.

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