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Zoology (Jena). 2007;110(5):398-408. Epub 2007 Sep 14.

Copulatory mechanism in a sexually cannibalistic spider with genital mutilation (Araneae: Araneidae: Argiope bruennichi).

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  • 1Department of Neuroethology, Institute of Zoology, University of Bonn, Endenicher Allee 11-13, D-53115, Bonn, Germany. g.uhl@uni-bonn.de


Genitalia are among the fastest evolving morphological traits as evidenced by their common function as diagnostic traits in species identification. Even though the main function of genitalia is the successful transfer of spermatozoa, the presence of diverse structures that are obviously not necessary for this suggests that genitalia are a target of sexual selection. The male genitalia of many spider species are extremely complex and equipped with numerous sclerites, plates and spines whose functions are largely unknown. Selection on male genitalia may be particularly strong in sexually cannibalistic spiders, where mating success of males is restricted to a single female. We investigated the copulatory mechanism of the sexually cannibalistic orb weaving spider Argiope bruennichi by shock freezing mating pairs and revealed a complicated interaction between the appendices and sclerites that make up the male gonopods (paired pedipalps). The plate that covers the female genital opening (scape) is secured between two appendices of the male genital bulb, while three sclerites that bear the sperm duct are unfolded and extended into the female copulatory opening. During copulation, females attack and cannibalise the male and males mutilate their genitalia in about 80% of cases. Our study demonstrates that (i) genital coupling is largely accomplished on the external part of the female genitalia, (ii) that the mechanism requires an interaction between several non-sperm-transferring structures and (iii) that there are two predetermined breaking points in the male genitalia. Further comparative work on the genus Argiope will test if the copulatory mechanism with genital mutilation indeed is an adaptation to sexual cannibalism or if cannibalism is a female counter adaptation to male monopolisation through genital plugging.

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