The Ultimate Sacrifice of Motherhood
The velvet spider gets its name from a soft coat of fur covering its body. But this creature is anything but cuddly. Its method of child-rearing is bone chilling, in fact.
The mother spider undergoes a biological process that causes its abdominal tissue to slowly liquefy, so its young can have a promising start with a protein-rich series of meals.
Scientists have known about matriphagy – or maternal suicide in service to offspring – for many years, but a recent study of the velvet spider is the first in-depth look into the mechanics of the phenomenon.
The mother’s body begins its breakdown process before its young have even hatched, through a process of degradation and liquidation of abdominal tissues. The ovaries, however, remain intact to the very last – probably in order to give birth to a second brood if something goes wrong with the first.
“Our work shows that the process [of abdominal tissue degradation] is gradual, possibly in order to allow the female to produce another clutch of eggs in case something goes wrong with the first one,” said Mor Solomon, a study leader from Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
After about two weeks, the spider’s babies pierce the mother’s abdominal wall and begin sucking out her innards.
The velvet spider is native to southern European countries and also found in Africa. Theorists believe the extreme behavior is a by-product of surviving harsh desert environments.