Spiders and their mating systems are useful study subjects with which to investigate questions of widespread interest about sexual selection, pre- and post-copulatory mate choice, sperm competition, mating strategies, and sexual conflict. Conclusions drawn from such studies are broadly applicable to a range of taxa, but rely on accurate understanding of spider sexual interactions. Extensive behavioural experimentation demonstrates the presence of sex pheromones in many spider species, and recent major advances in the identification of spider sex pheromones merit review. Synthesised here are the emission, transmission, structures, and functions of spider sex pheromones, with emphasis on the crucial and dynamic role of sex pheromones in female and male mating strategies generally. Techniques for behavioural, chemical and electrophysiological study are summarised, and I aim to provide guidelines for incorporating sex pheromones into future studies of spider mating.
In the spiders, pheromones are generally emitted by females and received by males, but this pattern is not universal. Female spiders emit cuticular and/or silk-based sex pheromones, which can be airborne or received via contact with chemoreceptors on male pedipalps. Airborne pheromones primarily attract males or elicit male searching behaviour. Contact pheromones stimulate male courtship behaviour and provide specific information about the emitter’s identity. Male spiders are generally choosy and are often most attracted to adult virgin females and juvenile females prior to their final moult. This suggests the first male to mate with a female has significant advantages, perhaps due to sperm priority patterns, or mated female disinterest. Both sexes may attempt to control female pheromone emission, and thus dictate the frequency and timing of female mating, reflecting the potentially different costs of female signalling and/or polyandry to both sexes. Spider sex pheromones are likely to be lipids or lipid soluble, may be closely related to primary metabolites, and are not necessarily species specific, although they can still assist with species recognition. Newer electrophysiological techniques coupled with chemical analyses assist with the identification of sex pheromone compounds. This provides opportunities for more targeted behavioural experimentation, perhaps with synthetic pheromones, and for theorising about the biosynthesis and evolution of chemical signals generally. Given the intriguing biology of spiders, and the critical role of chemical signals for spiders and many other animal taxa, a deeper understanding of spider sex pheromones should prove productive.