• Dr Ximena Nelson. Photo credit: The University of CanterburyDr Ximena Nelson. Photo credit: The University of Canterbury

University of Canterbury research reveals spiders have their own fears

Research conducted by an expert at the University of Canterbury has revealed that although many humans are afraid of spiders, many spiders are also afraid of something – and that is ants.

Dr Ximena Nelson is a biological sciences lecturer at the University, and considered to be one of the world’s leading experts on spiders and ants.  She has found that most species of spiders will run for their lives if they encounter myrmarachne melanotarsa, a gregarious jumping spider that pretends to be an ant.

Dr Nelson explained: "Ants are social and can mount a strong response if alerted to potential danger. They are extremely lethal to many spiders. Many ants also contain formic acid, which they can use for defence by squirting it on potential predators, causing considerable harm.” The jumping spider looks like, acts like, and hangs out with ants, even forming mini colony-type gangs to foil their own predators, and so most spiders will see this as a threat, even though the fake ant is actually a spider!

"Ants are often dangerous and kill almost anything of a similar (or even larger) size as themselves. Even if they don’t they can inflict as nasty bite or sting, and often, being social, they can mount a concerted joint defence. Predators tend to avoid them. Looking like an ant gets you avoided by potential predators.”

Which is why the jumping spider probably became more and more ant-like over a long period of evolution, adopting more and more ant-like behaviours and features.

Dr Nelson says that there are in fact more than 300 species of spider that mimic ants.  The strategy works against most spiders, but there are some ant-specialist spiders that routinely eat ants and have evolved venom and behavioural modifications that enables them to do so.  Amongst these is thought to be the Australian Redback spider – notorious for its ability to harm humans.

Find out more about the University of Canterbury here or contact Study Options for more information about studying biological sciences in New Zealand or Australia.

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