OK, what I am about to tell you is gross, even horrific. And (trigger warning to arachnophobes, who had better not click through to the jump) it has to do with spiders. And yet, there is what Yeats called a terrible beauty here. And, for Mother’s Day, it gives us a profound emblem of extreme motherhood.
Female Stegodyphus lineatus spiders spin loosely woven webs “like a ping-pong net,” says Mor Salomon of the Israel Cohen Institute for Biological Control in Israel. Salomon finds the webs in shrubbery along dry river beds in the Negev Desert. Protected inside a spider-size cave spun at one end of the web, a female creates what looks like a tiny silk hockey puck filled with 70 to 80 yellowish eggs.
When spiderlings hatch, they’re trapped in the puck. Mom pierces the protective silk to free them — and then she stops eating for the rest of her life. For the next two weeks or so, she feeds the dozens of young by regurgitating a transparent liquid. This slurry mixes what’s left of her last meals plus some of her own guts.The mother’s midgut had already started breaking down while she guarded the eggs, Salomon and her colleagues report in the April Journal of Arachnology. And by the time the pale youngsters hatch, liquefied gut suitable for baby mouthparts is building up in her abdomen.
As liquid wells out on mom’s face, spiderlings jostle for position, swarming over her head like a face mask of caramel-colored beads. This will be her sole brood of hatchlings, and she regurgitates 41 percent of her body mass to feed her spiderlings.
But her young take even more, possibly at her invitation. “She makes no attempt to escape,” Salomon says. Spiderlings pierce her abdomen with their mouthparts and over the course of several hours drain her innards.
At the beginning of the feeding, Salomon says, “if you touch a leg, she will pull it back. She’s definitely alive.” By the end, of course, she’s not. And she has contributed all but 4 percent of her body mass to offspring feeding. The liquefaction process that makes this possible proceeds in an orderly way, dissolving organs as they become expendable. One organ that remains till the end is mom’s heart.