A Phylogeny-Based Comparison of Tarantula Spider Anti-Predator Behavior Reveals Correlation of Morphology and Behavior


Samuel Marshall, Department of Biological Sciences, Northwestern State University, Natchitoches, LA 71497, USA.
E-mail: marshalls@nsula.edu


We studied anti-predator strategies in nine species of tarantulas from Asia, Africa, and the Americas. Tarantulas in the New World possess urticating hairs which induce inflammation when in contact with vertebrate mucus membranes and skin. In contrast, tarantulas from the Old World lack this defense but are observed to exhibit a much greater willingness to escalate to an active defense when provoked. We had three goals: (1) describe the behaviors exhibited by each taxon in response to two levels of provocation, (2) look for the presence of alternative classes of anti-predator strategy as predicted by the Old World–New World dichotomy in aggressive defense, and (3) examine the evolution of these behaviors in the context of the phylogeny of the group. We compared the response of nine different mygalomorph spider genera to two levels of aversive stimuli: puffs of air and prodding. We found that the overall structure of the defensive behavior was similar between the different taxa, consisting of fleeing, rearing, striking, and biting. Some genera did exhibit unique behaviors such as stridulating (Hysterocrates) or rocking (Haplopelma and Selenocosmia). We found that the genera from the New World exhibited low levels of escalation in their defense behaviors, while those from the Old World readily escalated to striking and biting. Our findings are consistent with the hypothesis that the possession of urticating hairs is associated with very low levels of active defense behaviors such as striking and biting. The phylogenetic analysis indicates that both the notable levels of aggression displayed by the African taxa tested and the relative passivity of the New World tarantulas each represents a synapomorphy.