Background: Males usually produce mating plugs to reduce sperm competition. However, females can conceivably also produce mating plugs in order to prevent unwanted, superfluous and energetically costly matings. In spiders-appropriate models for testing plugging biology hypotheses-mating plugs may consist of male genital parts and/or of amorphous covers consisting of glandular or sperm secretions. In the giant wood spider Nephila pilipes, a highly sexually dimorphic and polygamous species, males are known to produce ineffective embolic plugs through genital damage, but nothing is known about the origin and function of additional conspicuous amorphous plugs (AP) covering female genitals.
Methodology: We tested alternative hypotheses of the nature and function of AP in N. pilipes by staging mating trials with varying degrees of polyandry. No APs were ever formed during mating trials, which rules out the possibility of male AP formation. Instead, those females that oviposited produced the AP from a liquid secreted during egg sac formation. Polyandrous females were more likely to lay eggs and to produce the AP, as were those that mated longer and with more total insertions. Our further tests revealed that, in spite of being a side product of egg sac production, AP, when hardened, prevented any subsequent copulation.
Conclusions: We conclude that in the giant wood spider (Nephila pilipes), the amorphous mating plugs are not produced by the males, that repeated copulations (most likely polyandrous) are necessary for egg fertilization and AP formation, and that the AP represents a female adaptation to sexual conflict through prevention of unwanted, excessive copulations. Considering the largely unknown origin of amorphous plugs in spiders, we predict that a similar pattern might be detected in other clades, which would help elucidate the evolutionary interplay of various selection pressures responsible for the origin and maintenance of mating plugs.