by Denyse O'Leary
Here's an oldie (2007), but worth considering anyway: In "What happens when 50,000 spiders hunt together?" (Globe and Mail, Oct. 27, 2007), Elie Dolgin reports,
spider teamwork depends on the size of their dinner: They join together when faced with the larger prey of lowland rain forests, but go it alone at higher elevations, where insects are smaller.
"Being social and co-operating allows spiders to enter an ecological niche that's not available to solitary individuals," she says.
Social spiders live in self-contained nests that house up to 50,000 insects. Group living can enhance foraging success and provide better protection against strong rains and predators such as wasps, ants and praying mantises. But all this togetherness also leads to high rates of inbreeding, leaving colonies vulnerable to disease.
Either spiders and insects are smarter than we think or (more likely) something in them is smarter than we think.
And there are exceptions to the rules that Prof. AvilÃ©s has observed. She has discovered one new social species living 1,800 metres above sea level - about 1,000 metres above where loners were thought to take over. Prey insects are smaller at this elevation, however, so the species lives in smaller groups than its lowland cousins.
Denyse O'Leary is co-author of The Spiritual Brain.
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