Personality Mixing Helps Spider Colonies Survive Harsh Conditions

July 22, 2016 | Erica Tennenhouse

spider personalities
Photo credit: Alex Wild

Docile and aggressive spiders are better off together.

Different personalities can sometimes clash. But for some spiders, the presence of diverse personality types in the colony improves survival in extreme temperatures, according to a study in the journal Behavioral Ecology.

Tangle web spiders, found throughout North and South America, display either one of two personality types: docile or highly aggressive, with nothing in between. Both docile and aggressive spiders occupy the same living space and work together to care for broods and capture prey.

A research team led by Spencer Ingley, a postdoctoral fellow at University of North Carolina’s College of Arts and Sciences, wanted to know how each personality type would hold up in changing temperatures.

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"We live in a time of global change," said Ingley in a press release. "Scientists are seeing that these changes can have a huge impact on individual organisms and groups of organisms. But people have rarely looked at personalities and how the personalities of groups can alter their response to these changes, particularly in different temperature environments."

The researchers exposed tangle web spiders to temperatures as high as 93 degrees Fahrenheit and as low as 75 degrees Fahrenheit.

At the high temperatures, aggressive spiders stopped reproducing and began dying off. The opposite was true for docile spiders; they thrived in the heat, but their reproduction and survival dropped off at low temperatures.

However, when a colony contained a mix of personality types — both docile and aggressive spiders — the aggressive ones were able to survive the heat and the docile spiders survived the cold.

"Some aspect about living in a diverse society shields these aggressive spiders from selective pressures that would otherwise kill them," said Ingley.

"Without these diverse personalities, these spider societies would be more susceptible to extreme fluctuations in temperature - and it is interesting to think if our own society could benefit from diversity in a similar way."

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