The role of web-based chemical communication in the mating and foraging strategies of the orb web spider Argiope keyserlingi
AffiliationSchool of BioSciences
Document TypePhD thesis
Access StatusOpen Access
© 2017 Dr. Jessica Henneken
Chemical communication is critical in shaping the interactions of individual animals, both within and between species. Pheromones (species-specific chemical signals) occur in all species and arguably contribute to more animal interactions than any other mode of communication. Nevertheless, our understanding of the role, nature and expression of chemical signals are mostly informed by studies of insects. This thesis investigates the role and expression of web-based chemical components in the orb web spider Argiope keyserlingi. Given female sexual cannibalism, Argiope males are under strong selection to exhibit mate choice and previous studies suggest that males in this genus fine tune their mating decision using contact pheromones (species-specific chemical signals that benefit both the signaller and the receiver) present on the female’s web. Previous studies suggest that males use these web-based contact pheromones to avoid previously mated females. I predict that these web-based pheromones may also provide males with reliable information about the quality of the female as a reproductive partner. Further, as a sit-and-wait predator, I predict that selection will favour strategies that increase encounters between web and prey, including the use of prey-attracting allomones (inter-specific chemical signals that benefit the signaller but are harmful to the receiver). The expression of chemical signals is ultimately determined by a combination of environmental and genetic effects. There is considerable evidence that diet is the most significant factor shaping pheromone expression. This can lead to considerable intraspecific variation in the signal for opportunistic foragers such as spiders, whose diet is influenced by their choice of web placement. This variation presents specific challenges to the receiver who must recognise and respond appropriately to a range of signals. In Chapter 1, I provide a comprehensive review of the literature and argue that diet-mediated pheromones (and signature mixtures) can enforce signal reliability by providing receivers with reliable information about the identity or quality of the signaller. In the context of mate choice in Argiope spiders, this should allow the male to choose a partner that will maximise his reproductive fitness (for example, by providing the receiver with offspring that have inherited good foraging genes). In Chapter 2, I use chemical analyses (gas-chromatograph flame ionisation detection) of silk extracts to demonstrate that there is considerable variation in the web-based chemical components of female A. keyserlingi. My results suggests that this variation is most likely due to changes in the availability of dietary nitrogen following the introduction of the laboratory diet. The maintenance of mate choice requires variation in the signal, so that the choosy sex can distinguish between signallers. Further, the variation in the signal should reflect reliable information. I suggest that variation in the nitrogen-containing components of the silk provides reliable information to searching males about the quality of the female as a reproductive partner. In Chapter 3 I examine how these web-based components vary on a broader scale between geographically distinct populations, as well as their underlying genetic and environmental influences. I found that nitrogen containing web-based chemicals are the most variable between populations, consistent with the view that arthropod predators are nitrogen limited. Furthermore, I suggest that variation in the nitrogen containing components of silk may provide males with reliable information about the nutritional health and foraging ability of the female. Interestingly, I also found that a single unidentified nitrogen containing silk component (unknown amide 3) and the total amount of all nitrogen containing silk components are strongly correlated with female condition, and may therefore provide males with reliable information about the female as a reproductive partner. In Chapters 2 and 3, I characterise a number of interesting web-based chemical components whose functional roles are also worthy of future studies. Of these components, I was particularly interested in putrescine, which is a nitrogen-containing compound and thus an expensive investment for a nitrogen-limited species. Importantly, putrescine also has a distinctive smell (of rotting matter) and is attractive to certain species of Diptera. In Chapter 4, I use field experiments that manipulated the amount of putrescine on female silk to demonstrate that web-based putrescine increases prey encounters for females and therefore acts as a prey-attracting allomone. Additionally, I found differences in prey capture rates between females collected from different populations, suggesting that there is population-level variation in the web-based foraging strategy of these spiders. Given the cost of putrescine and its role in foraging, I investigate whether web-based putrescine may provide males with a reliable signal of the nutritional health and foraging ability of potential mates in Chapter 5. As mating preference in this species changes with the reproductive experience of the male, I test the preference of males with 1 – 2 or 1 remaining mating opportunity to webs built by females given diets differing in protein content and also where I artificially manipulate the putrescine content of silk. My findings suggest that males with just 1 remaining mating opportunity but not males with 1 – 2 remaining mating opportunities use web-based putrescine to make mating decisions. Surprisingly, female diet did not influence male preference for web-based putrescine. In Chapter 6 (appendix), I discuss how anthropogenic changes to the environment (including but not limited to the nutritional environment) can shape the expression of pheromones in insects, and the consequences this may have for sexual selection. On a broader scale, diet-mediated signals employed in either inter- or intra-specific communication are vulnerable to anthropogenic influences, as changes to the environment can affect nutrient availability. Together, my results suggest that variation in the web-based chemical components of Argiope keyserlingi are driven by the availability of dietary nitrogen, and I argue that this variation will allow males to make accurate mating decisions about the nutritional health and foraging ability of the female. In particular, my research suggests an important role for putrescine in both the foraging and mating strategy of this species. Diet-mediated chemical signals such as these can provide reliable information about the signaller, but are vulnerable to environmental shifts (anthropogenic or otherwise) in nutrient availability.
Keywordschemical communication; animal behaviour; spider; pheromones; foraging; mating
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