Proximate factors influencing dispersal in the social spider, Stegodyphus mimosarum (Araneae, Eresidae)
Stegodyphus mimosarum Pavesi,1883 and S. dumicola Pocock, 1898 are two species of philopatric, inbred, permanently communal, non-territorial spiders that co-occur in parts of South Africa. The patchiness of colony distribution, limited dispersal capabilities and the observation of periodic, but rare mass dispersal events raised interest in factors influencing dispersal. The aim of this project was firstly, to determine which factors influence the spiders' readiness to leave a colony (two laboratory experiments), and secondly, to map nest dispersion in Weenen Nature Reserve, Kwa-Zulu Natal, and to use this to explain nest distribution. The first experiment assessed whether group size and variance in access to resources influenced the decision to disperse. Four colony sizes (8, 16,32 and 64) of S. mimosarum were established under a proportional feeding regime. I expected more spiders to leave larger colonies due to intra-group competition. However, there was no significant increase in the number of spiders leaving with increasing group size. Significantly more spiders left a colony during spring and when spiders were large. In the second experiment, I assessed whether the mean amount of food available, in liberally fed or starved colonies influenced the decision to disperse. Five colonies were fed daily on an abundance of prey items and five were starved. I expected more spiders to leave the starved colonies. However, a significant number of spiders left colonies where food was abundant. During a field survey nests were tagged within 40 plots of 50 m radius, and randomly. Retreat dimensions, height above ground, nest position, nearest neighbouring nests, and species were recorded. Nest status was tracked over six months to three years. I confirmed that nest height above ground was significantly higher for S. mimosarum. The two species differed in retreat volume and nearest neighbour distances. Most nests occurred on the northern aspect of trees. Few nests survived beyond three years, although many new nests were established. Access to resources influenced the decision to disperse. However, only well-fed (larger) spiders had the resources to relocate. Patchy nest distribution could be a consequence of nest site selection, short distance dispersal by budding and bridging, and long distance dispersal by ballooning.