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Spiders target sexy signals from ‘vibrating’ insects

29 March 2011

Insects using vibration to attract a mate are at risk of being eaten alive by killer spiders, Cardiff University scientists have discovered.

Studying spider behaviour experts from Cardiff University’s School of Biosciences found that the vibrations used by leafhoppers and many other insects to attract a mate can be intercepted and used by predatory spiders to identify their prey.

Predators are already known to exploit the sight, sound and smell communications of their prey – but this is the first time that scientists believe they have discovered predators such as spiders can pick up these secretive vibrational signals and use them to find prey.

"Vibrational signalling is a widespread form of sexual communication between animals" according to Dr Meta Virant-Doberlet and Professor William Symondson, who undertook the research.

"By observing this behaviour we have been able to see, for the first time, that spiders are able to exploit sexual vibrational communication signals as a mean of tracking down their prey," they added.

The scientists made the discovery by observing the behaviour of one spider species Enoplognatha ovate - a relative of the highly poisonous Black Widow spider.

When recordings of male leafhopper vibrational signals were played, spiders began homing in on the signal and searching for food.

The spiders were also seen to have a preference for male leafhoppers over females, probably due to the ‘louder’, more complex signals used by males during courtship.

Although vibrational signalling is widespread amongst animals, this is the first time that anyone has shown that predators can use these signals to find their prey. The scientists believe this open up a whole new field of scientific investigation.

Professor Symondson and Dr Virant-Doberlet add: "Predators have evolved to intercept the signals of their prey but until now this was thought to be limited to visual, acoustic and chemical ways of communicating.

"This new discovery represents a previously overlooked strategy for prey location and a major unrecognised driver in the evolution of both predators and prey.

"This is a very significant scientific advance, opening up a whole new area for scientific investigation. Vibrational signalling is widespread amongst invertebrates and it is highly likely that many predators have evolved to exploit it."

The findings were published in the journal Molecular Ecology and was supported by a Marie Curie Fellowship, funded by the European Union.

-Ends-

Notes: A copy of the paper published in Molecular Ecology is available, on request.



More information is available by contacting:

Professor William Symondson
Cardiff School of Biosciences
Cardiff University
Tel: 029 20 875151
E-mail: Symondson@Cardiff.ac.uk

Cardiff School of Biosciences
Cardiff School of Biosciences is one of the largest bioscience departments in the UK. It is known world-wide for work across a wide range of fields and includes two Nobel Prize winners (Professors Robert Huber and Sir Martin Evans) among its researchers. Research at the School is focused within six major areas: biodiversity, connective tissue biology, genetics, microbiology, molecular cell biology and neuroscience.

The School houses the Common Cold Centre, the world’s only centre dedicated to researching and testing new medicines for treatment of the symptoms of flu and the common cold. It also directs the newly-funded Arthritis Research Campaign and Cancer Research UK research centres.

Following the latest independent assessment of teaching quality, all courses at the School were rated as ‘excellent’, the highest rating attainable. Cardiff is renowned for its Biosciences Field Courses which rank among the best on offer at any British university. Recently the School has added to this capacity by opening a field centre in Sabah, Malaysia in conjunction with the Malaysian Wildlife Trust.

Cardiff University
Cardiff University is recognised in independent government assessments as one of Britain’s leading teaching and research universities and is a member of the Russell Group of the UK’s most research intensive universities. Among its academic staff are two Nobel Laureates, including the winner of the 2007 Nobel Prize for Medicine, University President Professor Sir Martin Evans.

Founded by Royal Charter in 1883, today the University combines impressive modern facilities and a dynamic approach to teaching and research. The University’s breadth of expertise in research and research-led teaching encompasses: the humanities; the natural, physical, health, life and social sciences; engineering and technology; preparation for a wide range of professions; and a longstanding commitment to lifelong learning.

Three major new Research Institutes, offering radical new approaches to neurosciences and mental health, cancer stem cells and sustainable places were announced by the University in 2010.