Bringing down the house: male widow spiders reduce the webs of aggressive females more

  • N. DiRienzoEmail author
  • C. T. Bradley
  • C. A. Smith
  • A. Dornhaus
Original Article


Theory suggests that males should adjust courtship in response to a variety of factors, including female quality, the risk of male-male competition, and often in spiders, the risk of sexual cannibalism. Male black widow spiders demonstrate a behavior during courtship whereby they tear down and bundle a female’s web in addition to providing other vibratory and contact sexual signals. This web reduction has been hypothesized to play a role in all three factors (sexual signaling, competition reduction, and cannibalism reduction), but rarely are these tested together. Here, we test these hypotheses by conducting mating trials using the western black widow (Latrodectus hesperus) and measuring both male and female quality and behavior. Our results indicate that amount of web reduction is best predicted by female aggression, and not aspects of either male or female quality (e.g., body mass), or by the potential for the web to attract other males (e.g., web mass). Yet, actual mating success was best predicted by the proportion of web reduced. Furthermore, there was no consistent among-individual variation in either reduction behavior or male success, indicating that all variation in both measures was due to plasticity and/or other unaccounted-for male or female traits. Collectively, we conclude that the primary function of web reduction behavior is to reduce female aggression and thus the risk of sexual cannibalism, and that any other functions such as signaling and reducing male-male competition have relatively lower importance.

Significance statement

Male widow spiders must account for female aggression, quality, and male-male competition when courting females. During courtship, males will reduce a female’s web by tearing it down and bundling the silk, which may aid in all three of these issues. Our results demonstrate that males reduce the webs of aggressive females more, and less so to potentially reduce competition from other males or in response to female quality. Ultimate mating success was dictated by how much a male reduced the web of a given female. Finally, males showed no among-individual variation in reduction behavior, indicating that the extensive variation in this behavior is due solely to plasticity in response to the female.


Courtship behavior Web reduction Sexual cannibalism Mate choice Latrodectus 



Thanks to Cameron Jones for comments on an early version of this manuscript.

Author contributions

ND and AD designed the study. ND conducted the experiment and data processing in conjunction with CB and CS. ND conducted the statistical analysis, and wrote the initial draft of the manuscript. All authors contributed to the final editing of the manuscript.

Funding information

Funding was provided by a University of Arizona Postdoctoral Excellence in Research and Teaching Fellowship (NIH # 5K12GM000708-17) awarded to ND and by the NSF (grant no. IOS-1455983 to AD).

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

Widow spiders are not subject to any ethical protocals in the United States.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Ecology and Evolutionary BiologyUniversity of ArizonaTucsonUSA

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