A Continuum of Behavioral Plasticity in Urban and Desert Black Widows

Rebecca N. Halpin, James Johnson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

16 Scopus citations


Behavioral plasticity marks an individual's ability to modulate behavior across functional contexts. Behavioral syndromes, on the other hand, appear as consistent individual variation in behavior that is both repeatable for individuals within a functional context (e.g., consistent voracity toward prey) and correlated across contexts (e.g., high voracity toward prey and high levels of boldness toward enemies). Thus, adaptive plasticity and syndromes represent two extremes of a behavioral plasticity continuum upon which most behavioral phenotypes fall. We tested for both adaptive plasticity and behavioral syndromes in the western black widow spider, Latrodectus hesperus. We measured behavior in three contexts: startle, startle + prey, and startle + mate, and found (1) classic behaviorally plastic responses to predation risk, (2) high repeatability of behavior within contexts, and (3) evidence of a correlation between startle + prey and startle + mate contexts, indicative of a behavioral syndrome. As relative behavioral plasticity may vary across populations, we also compared urban and desert populations to test whether spiders from these habitats exhibit different behaviors and/or behavioral syndromes. While we found that urban males used in mating trials courted urban females significantly more than desert females, we found no other differences in the behavior of urban and desert black widows. Thus, black widows, regardless of habitat, are characterized by both context-specific behavioral plasticity and across-context correlations, presenting a phenotypic complexity that is likely exhibited, to varying degrees, by most organisms.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1237-1247
Number of pages11
Issue number12
StatePublished - Dec 1 2014


  • Behavioral plasticity
  • Behavioral syndromes
  • Human-induced rapid environmental change
  • Latrodectus hesperus

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Animal Science and Zoology


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