Species Spotlight: The Labyrinth Spider

Hi everyone

This will be the first in a new weekly series of closer looks, where I do a short blog with some more information about a species that one of our participants has in the previous week.

We're kicking off with the Labyrinth spider (Agelena labyrinthica), a spider species found across Europe. This species is instantly noticeable due to their conspicuous (and pretty big!) webs - they're funnel-shaped, often found a few feet off the ground, and may be constructed over several bushes. When I first spotted these webs I panicked that Wales had had an invasion of funnel web spiders from Australia, but a quick Google search showed me it was the work of our native, and harmless, labyrinth spider. Definitely check out their webs on Google Images - they construct magnificent tunnels!

So let's talk about those webs first. They look striking from a distance, with their long tunnel... but, if you were able (and brave enough) to venture down the tunnel you would be greeted with a series of smaller, more intricate labyrinths (hence the name). The reason for this elaborate construction is to protect her unborn children. Like hidden treasure in an adventure film, the centre of the maze contains the spider's egg sac (more on her children shortly).

The tunnels aren't the only cool thing about these webs. They're also incredibly strong, so much so that 16th Century monks used to layer them to use as canvas for painting. Good luck doing that with your common house spider webs! The webs need to be pretty robust because the labyrinth spider likes to snack on some larger insects, including crickets - you certainly need a strong web to catch a cricket.

As you might have guessed from their prey, labyrinth spiders are one of the lager spider species in the UK. However, you're most likely to see the females of this species (the larger sex, as is the case with most spiders) hunched up in their tunnel, disguising their true size. I was lucky enough to record two spiders venture our of their tunnels to have a fight and/or mate (myself and the British Arachnological Society couldn't quite figure out for definite what was going on, although most likely mating) - you can see the clip here: https://twitter.com/kieranscience/status/1416402569702821894

If it was indeed mating, then the female spider will soon retreat back to her tunnel to guard her egg sac. Now, like any mother, the labyrinth spider wants the best possible start in life for her children. However, like many of her fellow spider species, the labyrinth spider really takes this to the extreme - as if building a sturdy, intricate fortress to protect her eggs wasn't enough, the labyrinth spider mum will then make the ultimate sacrifice as one last act of motherly love.... that's right, labyrinth spiders practice matriphagy!

If you're wracking your brain trying to piece together some Latin and you think "No, I must have got that wrong!".... you haven't! Matri - referring to the mother; phagy - referring to eating! Yep, as her last act on Earth, the labyrinth spider mother will let her babies actually eat her, providing the new hatchlings with a nourishing first meal before they set out in the big wide world! Luckily (if that's the right word) for the mother, she dies before her young hatch, so at least she isn't eaten alive. Always look on the bright side!

Posted by kieran-182 kieran-182, July 22, 2021 14:06

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