Sexual dimorphism in leg length among orb-weaving spiders: a possible role for sexual cannibalism

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Abstract

The degree and direction of sexual dimorphism across different species is commonly attributed to differences in the selection pressures acting on males and females. The extent of these differences is especially apparent in species that practise sexual cannibalism, where the female attempts to capture and eat a courting male. Here, we investigate the relationship between sexual dimorphism in size and leg length, sexual cannibalism and courtship behaviour in three taxonomic groups of orb-weaving spiders, using morphological data from 249 species in 36 genera. Females are larger than males in all three taxonomic groups, and males have relatively longer legs than females in both the Araneinae and Tetragnathidae. Across genera within each taxonomic group, male body size is positively correlated with both female body size and male leg length, and female body size is positively correlated with female leg length. Sexual size dimorphism is negatively correlated with relative male leg length within the Araneinae, but not within either the Tetragnathidae or the Gasteracanthinae. There was no negative correlation between sexual size dimorphism and relative female leg length in any taxonomic group. We argue that the relationship between sexual size dimorphism and relative male leg length within the Araneinae may be the result of selection imposed by sexual cannibalism by females.

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