Death feigning in the face of sexual cannibalism

Trine Bilde, Cristina Tuni, Rehab Elsayed, Stano Pekár, Søren Toft

Abstract

Pre-copulatory sexual cannibalism by females affects male and female reproductive success in profoundly different ways, with the females benefiting from a meal and the male facing the risk of not reproducing at all. This sexual conflict predicts evolution of traits to avoid cannibalism and ensure male reproductive success. We show that males of the nuptial gift-giving spider Pisaura mirabilis display a remarkable death feigning behaviour—thanatosis—as part of the courtship prior to mating with potentially cannibalistic females. Thanatosis is a widespread anti-predator strategy; however, it is exceptional in the context of sexual selection. When the female approached a gift-displaying male, she usually showed interest in the gift but would sometimes attack the male, and at this potentially dangerous moment the male could ‘drop dead’. When entering thanatosis, the male would collapse and remain completely motionless while retaining hold of the gift so it was held simultaneously by both mates. When the female initiated consumption of the gift, the male cautiously ‘came to life’ and initiated copulation. Death feigning males were more successful in gaining copulations, but did not have prolonged copulations. We propose that death feigning evolved as an adaptive male mating strategy in conjunction with nuptial gift giving under the risk of being victimized by females.

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Footnotes

  • Present address: Department of Zoology & Ecology, Masaryk University, Brno, Czech Republic.

    • Received July 2, 2005.
    • Accepted August 31, 2005.
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