The functions of societies and the evolution of group living: spider societies as a test case


  • Mary E. A. Whitehouse,

    1. Mitrani Department of Desert Ecology, Blaustein Institute for Desert Research, Ben Gurion University, Sede Boker, Israel 84990
    2. Department of Zoology and Entomology, The University of Queensland, Brisbane, QLD 4072, Australia
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      CSIRO Cotton Research Unit, Locked Bag 59, Narrabri, NSW 2390, Australia

  • Yael Lubin

    1. Mitrani Department of Desert Ecology, Blaustein Institute for Desert Research, Ben Gurion University, Sede Boker, Israel 84990
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Many models have been advanced to suggest how different expressions of sociality have evolved and are maintained. However these models ignore the function of groups for the particular species in question. Here we present a new perspective on sociality where the function of the group takes a central role. We argue that sociality may have primarily a reproductive, protective, or foraging function, depending on whether it enhances the reproductive, protective or foraging aspect of the animal's life (sociality may serve a mixture of these functions). Different functions can potentially cause the development of the same social behaviour. By identifying which function influences a particular social behaviour we can determine how that social behaviour will change with changing conditions, and which models are most pertinent. To test our approach we examined spider sociality, which has often been seen as the poor cousin to insect sociality. By using our approach we found that the group characteristics of eusocial insects is largely governed by the reproductive function of their groups, while the group characteristics of social spiders is largely governed by the foraging function of the group. This means that models relevant to insects may not be relevant to spiders. It also explains why eusocial insects have developed a strict caste system while spider societies are more egalitarian. We also used our approach to explain the differences between different types of spider groups. For example, differences in the characteristics of colonial and kleptoparasitic groups can be explained by differences in foraging methods, while differences between colonial and cooperative spiders can be explained by the role of the reproductive function in the formation of cooperative spider groups. Although the interactions within cooperative spider colonies are largely those of a foraging society, demographic traits and colony dynamics are strongly influenced by the reproductive function. We argue that functional explanations help to understand the social structure of spider groups and therefore the evolutionary potential for speciation in social spiders.