National Geographic News
An emasculated spider.

Seen close up, stumps on both sides of its mandibles are all that remain of a male spider's genitals.

Photograph courtesy Matjaž Kuntner

Charles Q. Choi

for National Geographic News

Published March 30, 2011

Although emasculated spiders can no longer be lovers, they are better fighters, a new study says.

In many spider species, males have sex using two appendages known as pedipalps. But males will often lose one or both pedipalps during the act—behavior that might seem like a bad idea evolutionarily, since it renders the male sterile.

(Related pictures: "'Torture' Phalluses Give Beetles Breeding Boost.")

Scientists have proposed that such genital amputation plugs up a female to help ensure that other males don't successfully impregnate her.

To learn more about why male spiders become eunuchs, scientists examined the mating behaviors of the Southeast Asian orb web spider, Nephilengys malabarensis. (Related: "Largest Web-Spinning Spider Found.")

The scientists found that amputated genitals effectively plugged up a female spider 75 percent of the time. In addition, the team saw that males with missing genitals were far more aggressive and active in guarding females.

During contests between males, full eunuchs that had lost both pedipalps were better fighters than half eunuchs and intact males, the study showed. Overall, the eunuchs were more than three times more likely to attack, chase, and defeat any rivals.

The scientists think that, once a male has lost his means of procreating, he protects his investment further by becoming a superwarrior.

"We think, but are not sure, that the changes in behavior may be due to changing hormone levels" triggered by losing the pedipalps, said study co-author Matjaž Kuntner, a spider expert at the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts in Ljubljana.

"But the ultimate reason for this behavior is that eunuchs, with no reproductive future, have nothing to lose and risk more in contests."

The study also observed that females of this species will frequently devour males after sex, Kuntner added. Males could thus be breaking off their genitals, he said, to help ensure their sperm still has a fighting chance even if they fall victim to cannibalism.

The eunuch-spider study was published online March 23 in the journal Animal Behaviour.



Feed the World

  • How to Feed Our Growing Planet

    How to Feed Our Growing Planet

    National Geographic explores how we can feed the growing population without overwhelming the planet in our food series.

See blogs, stories, photos, and news »

Latest From Nat Geo

See more photos »

Shop Our Space Collection

  • Be the First to Own <i>Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey</i>

    Be the First to Own Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey

    The updated companion book to Carl Sagan's Cosmos, featuring a new forward by Neil deGrasse Tyson is now available. Proceeds support our mission programs, which protect species, habitats, and cultures.

Shop Now »