Background: Interspecific coevolution is well described, but we know significantly less about how multiple traits coevolve within a species, particularly between behavioral traits and biomechanical properties of animals' "extended phenotypes". In orb weaving spiders, coevolution of spider behavior with ecological and physical traits of their webs is expected. Darwin's bark spider (Caerostris darwini) bridges large water bodies, building the largest known orb webs utilizing the toughest known silk. Here, we examine C. darwini web building behaviors to establish how bridge lines are formed over water. We also test the prediction that this spider's unique web ecology and architecture coevolved with new web building behaviors.
Methodology: We observed C. darwini in its natural habitat and filmed web building. We observed 90 web building events, and compared web building behaviors to other species of orb web spiders.
Conclusions: Caerostris darwini uses a unique set of behaviors, some unknown in other spiders, to construct its enormous webs. First, the spiders release unusually large amounts of bridging silk into the air, which is then carried downwind, across the water body, establishing bridge lines. Second, the spiders perform almost no web site exploration. Third, they construct the orb capture area below the initial bridge line. In contrast to all known orb-weavers, the web hub is therefore not part of the initial bridge line but is instead built de novo. Fourth, the orb contains two types of radial threads, with those in the upper half of the web doubled. These unique behaviors result in a giant, yet rather simplified web. Our results continue to build evidence for the coevolution of behavioral (web building), ecological (web microhabitat) and biomaterial (silk biomechanics) traits that combined allow C. darwini to occupy a unique niche among spiders.