Spider mite males ‘undress' their partners to mate ASAP

Spider mite males ‘undress' their partners to mate ASAP

Editor's note:

Subscribe to CNN

Wonder Theory Science Newsletter

Discover the world with fascinating discoveries, technological advancements and much more.

The Supremes sang that you can't rush love. But in the animal world, finding a mate as soon as possible is crucial to passing genes on.

Researchers have described a extreme example of such behavior in a study published in the

Journal iScience

Male spider mites remove the skin of newly matured females that is molting to make sure they are in front to mate.

Spider mites, which are smaller than a ballpoint pen tip, are tiny arachnids. They're distant cousins to spiders. The eight-legged creatures feed on plants, piercing tissues with their sharp teeth and sucking the juices out.

The competition for a mate can be fierce in colonies of spider mites, because the females will only use the sperm of the first male they mate with. The spider mites store the sperm they collect in an internal pouch that is used to fertilize eggs throughout their life.

Male spider mites are able to increase their chances of a successful mating by developing strategies. Male spider mites guard nearly-mature females so they are ready to mate as soon as their females do. Researchers have nicknamed some males'sneakers,' who lie in stealth and wait for the females to mature. Males attack as soon as the mature female emerges from her old skin.

Molt and mate

Dr. Peter Schausberger is a principal researcher of arthropod behavior ecology at the University of Vienna. He studies the mating behaviors of spider mites. When he and his colleagues were watching video footage captured by a digital microscope, they noticed an odd thing.

Schausberger was the lead author in the new study. The males pull the back parts of the skin off to gain access to the genital opening. He said that sometimes they will copulate while the front of the female is still covered. There's not enough time to completely undress.

It may sound horrifying, but Schausberger says it does not hurt the females. The skin that the males remove is dead and would fall off without their assistance.

Competition is fierce

Schausberger and colleagues examined the mites' behavior when they were undressed in the laboratory. The team discovered that when males helped females remove old skin from their bodies, the molting was faster. This increased the chances for males to be the first to mate. Schausberger stated that if a male guarding the females removes their old skin, the molting process is accelerated and they have a better chance of being first to mate.

Schausberger believes that this behavior could also be observed in other spider mite species. This guarding behavior has been observed in several mite species. I therefore assume that the undressing behavior of other spider mites will be seen as well, since they are all under the same stress. If they have to be the first mating partners, it is highly stressful for them.

Eight-legged spider cousins live in colonies that are densely packed, making it difficult to find a mate. - Tomasz Klejdysz/iStockphoto/Getty Images/File

Dr. Yukie Sato from the University of Tsukuba, Japan, who was not involved in the paper, praised its experimental design. Sato stated that many spider mite researchers had observed males molting females and wondered why their mouths often touched the area where the female's first skin broke off while the male was mounting. This study provides excellent evidence that males help females molt, and reduce the time it takes to molt.

Pests or tiny Wonders?

Many biologists use spider mites to model their organisms. While gardeners and farmers often despise them for eating plants, they are actually beneficial.

Because they are so easy to raise in the laboratory, you can ask them these really cool behavioral questions. A lot of research has been done on the genetics of these insects, said Dr. Rebecca Schmidt Jeffris, a Research Entomologist with the US Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service. She was not part of the study. In the future, when people develop more specific pest management strategies, they may be able to exploit this behavior. You could, for example, create a spider mite which is no longer good at mating.

Schausberger hopes that this study will encourage people to rethink these creatures, which are often overlooked. He said: 'I'm hoping they're fascinated by the sophisticated behavior that has evolved in spider mites and other tiny creatures.

Kate Golembiewski

She is a Chicago-based freelance science writer who loves zoology and thermodynamics. She hosts a comedy talk show called 'A scientist walks into a bar'

Create an account to receive more CNN News and Newsletters