Interacting traits and secret senses – arachnids as models for studies of behavioral evolution

author: Eileen Hebets, School of Biological Sciences, University of Nebraska-Lincoln
published: March 13, 2013,   recorded: September 2012,   views: 53

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Arachnids are extremely well equipped to both extract salient information from their environment and to transmit salient information through their environment utilizing a diverse array of sensory structures. Many of these sensory structures are highly specialized and are unique to particular arachnid groups; and as such, offer the opportunity for researchers to explore broad questions regarding the evolution and function of sensory systems. These diverse sensory systems can also be heavily integrated into the complex behavioral dialogues witnessed across many arachnid groups, such as those observed in agonistic interactions or courtship displays. Recent work has built upon foundational physiological and morphological studies by utilizing new technology and integrating across traditional disciplines to examine the function of specific sensory modalities in complex behavioral displays. These studies have revealed, in part, that previously unrecognized sensory modalities play predominant roles in well established behavior – such as the use of near field sound in the antenniform leg vibration displays of the amblypygid Phrynus marginemaculatus. Additionally, researchers have taken advantage of the ability to manipulate signaling environments as well as phenotypic traits in many arachnids to uncover the underappreciated importance of trait interactions in display function – such as the interaction between foreleg ornamentation and courtship rate in the wolf spider Schizocosa stridulans, or the interaction between seismic and visual signals in the wolf spider Rabidosa rabida. Currently, spiders represent an impressive 34% of studies focused upon multimodal communication and the opportunity exists to increase this percentage. I argue that arachnids are ideal organisms for studies addressing the evolution and function of sensory systems and associated communication systems and that such studies are extremely timely. Furthermore, the field of Arachnology has a strong tradition in systematics and phylogenetics, in addition its strength in behavioral studies. Arachnid systematists and phylogeneticists are at the forefront of the field and as such, our knowledge of the phylogenetic relationships of certain arachnid groups is vast. The opportunities for integrating behavioral studies with evolutionary theory and questions are considerable and it is an exciting time to be an arachnologist. I argue that the future of arachnology is in cross-disciplinary collaborations and that arachnids can become model organisms in behavioral evolution.

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