Scientists have identified about 43,000 species of spiders in the world. Only about 25 of these species are social animals, living in communities like ants and people.
One such species lives in Africa. A group containing from 20 to 300 spiders called Stegodyphus mimosarum weave large communal webs like this:
What is especially interesting about these little spiders is that the longer they live together, the more specialized they become.
Spiders seem to have personalities of a kind. Some are more shy than others; some are more aggressive. Researchers have discovered that if they put together a small group of these spiders, their individual traits gradually become stronger. The aggressive spiders, for example, become more aggressive.
As their colonies grow, the spiders also take on specialized social roles that seem to depend on their personalities, the shy ones staying inside the web and tending to the young, while the more adventurous ones defend the web and subdue prey (usually insects, but not always). Which roles individual spiders take on also appears to depend on the needs of the colony.
According to the New York Times:
The researchers view the development of strong personalities as the behavioral version of so-called niche partitioning, carving out a specialty in a crowded, competitive world….[One researcher] says the spider work neatly illustrates the mix of plasticity and predilection that underlies personality.
“I think it’s such an appealing idea that social interactions could cause social niches, and it resonates with our own experience as humans,” she said. “When you go into a group, your behavior changes depending on the nature of that group, but it can only change so far.”
It’s remarkable that these tiny spiders, with their even tinier brains, not only react differently to various stimuli but form communities that increase in size as individuals gravitate toward specific social roles, depending on their own proclivities and the needs of the community. Since that sounds a lot like what it takes to grow up and make a living in New Jersey, it’s one more piece of evidence that we too are part of nature and not as uniquely talented as we think we are.