Population ecology and stoichiometry of the western black widow spider: from solitary desert predator to urban pest

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Human-induced rapid environmental change (HIREC) influences nearly all of Earth's ecosystems through processes such as urbanization. Previous studies have found that urbanization influences biodiversity patterns, often yielding an increase in

Human-induced rapid environmental change (HIREC) influences nearly all of Earth's ecosystems through processes such as urbanization. Previous studies have found that urbanization influences biodiversity patterns, often yielding an increase in the abundance of a few urban-adapted taxa at the expense of native species diversity. The western black widow spider, Latrodectus hesperus, is a medically-important pest species that often forms dense urban subpopulations (i.e., infestations) relative to the low-density subpopulations found throughout undisturbed, desert habitat. Here, I employ field and laboratory studies to examine the population ecology and stoichiometry of this urban pest to increase our understanding of the mechanisms underlying its success. The population ecology of ten black widow subpopulations spread across metropolitan Phoenix, AZ was examined during the peak breeding season (June-August). This study revealed that arthropod prey abundance, female mass and population density of females showed significant spatial variation across the ten subpopulations. Additionally, prey abundance and foraging success, measured as the number of carcasses found in webs, were a strong determinant of female mass and population density within each subpopulation. To test the mechanisms that drive black widow infestations, I used ecological stoichiometry to examine the nutrient (nitrogen and phosphorus) composition of spiders and arthropod prey from urban habitat, desert habitat and a laboratory diet regime. These studies revealed that (1) spiders are more nutrient rich than cricket prey in the field, (2) spider subpopulations exhibit significant spatial variation in their nitrogen composition, (3) nutrient composition of urban spider subpopulations does not differ significantly from Sonoran desert subpopulations, (4) laboratory-reared spiders fed a diet of only laboratory-reared crickets are more nitrogen and phosphorus limited than field-captured spiders, and (5) cannibalism by laboratory-reared spiders alleviated phosphorus limitation, but not nitrogen limitation, when compared to field-captured spiders. This work highlights the need to examine the population ecology of species relationships, such as predator-prey dynamics, to fully understand the fecundity and population growth of urban pest species. Moreover, the integration of population ecology and stoichiometry illustrates the need to address mechanisms like nutrient limitation that may explain why urban pest populations thrive and native species diversity suffers following HIREC.