Studying the sex lives of spiders

28 November 2022

Dr Chrissie Painting uses spiders to try and uncover why monogyny exists within a species and thereby paint a broader picture of evolution

A Marsden Fast Start grant will allow University of Waikato behavioural ecologist and senior lecturer Dr Chrissie Painting the time and opportunity to learn more about something that would keep most normal people awake at night - the sex lives of spiders.

Dr Painting’s research will look into the Dolomedes fishing spiders in particular, a group that shows remarkable variation in mating systems and are found in New Zealand and more widely across the globe.

“I am broadly interested in finding out why animals are so variable in their behaviour and appearance. Trying to figure out what drives some of those evolutionary processes to look and act differently among groups of closely related species.

“Within that I’m really interested in mating system evolution - trying to understand why in some species individuals mate with a single partner for life, while others mate many times - and all the variation in between.. Generally speaking we see male animals trying to maximise their reproductive success by mating lots of times, while females tend to choose fewer, high-quality mates.”

Dr Painting says the rarer phenomenon of monogyny, where males mate only once in their lifetime, tends to be associated with crazy stuff like the male redback spider that somersaults itself into the jaws of the female after mating, or the lifelong fusing of tiny parasite males to female anglerfish.

Dr Chrissie Painting is researching Dolomedes spiders to try to answer the question of variation in species.

Her study uses spiders to try and uncover why monogyny exists within a species and thereby paint a broader picture of evolution.

The FastStart project focuses on Dolomedes fishing spiders to identify all the different elements that describe an animals mating behaviour and discover which of them are integral to the evolution of that system. Complex systems biology, network science and phylogenetic analyses will the allow the team to look at the links between the elements from an evolutionary viewpoint.

“There are four species of Dolomedes in New Zealand, three here on the mainland and one on several  remote islands of the Chatham Island archipelago. Across the globe there are over 100 species of them so they’re a big group that we can use to tease apart what might be driving variation in mating behaviour.

Dr Painting's FastStart project focuses on Dolomedes fishing spiders to identify all the different elements that describe an animals mating behaviour.

“For one of the American species, the male spontaneously dies after he mates - his heart literally stops beating - and he remains attached to the female and so she eats him. But we know that there’s lots of variation along a continuum for this group of spiders. In contrast to this extreme monogyny with spontaneous male death and sexual cannibalism, we also have early evidence that other species in the genus mate with multiple partners.

“So we have all this variation in one group of spiders, which l provides a fantastic model system for us to look at.”

Dr Painting has joined up with colleagues Professor Eileen Hebets from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Associate Professor Matjaž Kuntner from the National Institute of Biology in Slovenia, and Dr Dion O’Neale at University of Auckland.

“We’re basically trying to answer why, when you have a whole group of related species, do you see so much variation? Why aren’t they all doing the same thing? If we work toward understanding this, we can begin to understand why variation in animal behaviour and appearance exists – a fundamental question for evolutionary biology.”

This research aligns with the following United Nations Sustainable Development Goals:

Quality Education Climate Action Life on Land Partnerships for the goals

Latest stories

Related stories


Scholarship recipient loves learning about people

It takes a special person to receive two scholarships from the University of Waikato but…

University set to host international epicentre of activity for volcanologists

Hundreds of volcanologists and earth scientists from around the world meet in Rotorua for the…

New app allows easy identification of all NZ plants, animals and fungi

Imagine being able to readily identify every plant and bird in your garden, on a…

Waikato wins at Australasian Formula SAE

A team of engineering students from the University of Waikato won first place overall for…

Prime Minister’s Scholarship students getting ready to fly

While most of us are winding down to a relaxing holiday season, a number of…

University of Waikato researchers shape the future of Artificial Intelligence in New Zealand

University of Waikato researchers are using artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning to tackle problems…

Avoiding climate breakdown depends on protecting Earth’s biodiversity – can the COP15 summit deliver?

Thousands of delegates have gathered in Montreal, Canada, for a once-in-a-decade chance to address the…

Kiwifruit E-BIN a winner for Waikato

The University of Waikato’s electronic Kiwifruit Human Assisted Harvesting (e-BIN) that simplifies harvesting of kiwifruit…

Waikato mechatronics connecting with the world

Dr Shen Hin Lim, Senior Lecturer of Mechatronics and Programme Leader of Mechatronics at the…

Fieldays e-Bin

Making fruit picking easy with the e-Bin

The University of Waikato has developed an electronic fruit bin that assists in the harvesting…

New research aims to discover when and to what extent children acquire social meaning of words

The desire to understand children’s associations of certain words, their meanings and associations of speakers…

Engineering Design Show promotes talent, vision and skill

The annual Engineering Design Show at the University of Waikato wrapped up last week with…