comb-footed spider

The spider known as Anelosimus studiosus, which lives along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts of the United States and Mexico, was studied for how it behaved after hurricanes. Not nicely, researchers found. Provided/Thomas Jones

Spiders are getting meaner. It's the heat, the humidity and apparently the hurricanes.

Researchers at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, say that after a storm, the colonies that survived better were the ones that were more aggressive in attacking prey, cannibalizing each other and their own eggs.

They studied 240 colonies of a type of comb-footed spider commonly found in the Southeastern U.S., doing their work in the aftermath of Hurricanes Florence and Michael in 2018.

The study sites included the South Santee River near McClellanville and two spots near Florence. 

The research indicated that meaner spiders produced more egg cases and had more spiderlings survive after the storms, thus giving them evolutionary advantage.

For the future, that means as the climate gets hotter and storms more prevalent, the spiders that survive will get testier.

Whether the finding could be extended to animal species in general — much less humans — is yet to be seen. But Jonathan Pruitt, an evolutionary biologist at the university who was the study's lead author, made no bones about it.

"Now more than ever we need to contend with what the ecological and evolutionary impacts of these storms will be for non-human animals," he said.

"Aggressiveness is passed down through generations of these colonies, from parent to daughter, and is a major factor in their survival and ability to reproduce," Pruitt added.

In coastal South Carolina, that could mean anything from mosquitoes to black bears.

Comb-footed spiders are also called tangle-web spiders, one of those arachnids that build webs in a mess rather than a symmetric design. Of parallel concern, so do the highly venomous brown and black widow spiders, which are native to the South.

Just don't panic yet. Comb-footed spiders rarely bite and are barely venomous at all when they do.

Another point of ease for humans is that there was no real uptick in reports of spider bites to the Palmetto Poison Center after Florence swamped the coast.

Jill Michels, the center's director, said the reports received were nothing out of the ordinary.

Hurricanes do affect animals as they react to the noise, human response and lead-up to an approaching storm. The South Carolina 2019 Hurricane Guide put out by the S.C. Division of Emergency Management cautions: "The behavior of your pets may change after an emergency. Normally quiet and friendly pets may become aggressive or defensive."

Insects aren't the only critters affected by storm aftermath. After the historic flooding in 2015 and Hurricane Matthew in 2016, rats and other nuisance wildlife came out of the swamped woods in droves.

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Reach Bo Petersen at @bopete on Twitter or 843-937-5744.

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