Watch Baby Spiders Eat Their Mothers Alive

Females—even virgin ones—make the ultimate sacrifice for their colony's young, a new study says.

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Talk about long-suffering moms—some female spiders allow their young to eat them alive, a new study says.

The species Stegodyphus dumicola, native to South Africa, lives in large family groups that share both communal nests and childcare duties.

Only about 40 percent of the females get the chance to reproduce because they mature more slowly than the males, and those that don't—the so-called virgin females—go to extreme lengths to care for their sisters' babies.

Once the eggs hatch, both mother and virgin females begin producing a nourishing fluid, which they feed to the offspring by mouth. (See National Geographic's pictures of animal mothers and babies.)

“This is a very intense process. In the end, the female will basically start to liquefy, and will use up almost all of her resources," says study co-author Anja Junghanns, an evolutionary biologist at Germany's University of Greifswald.

"When she is almost depleted, the offspring will crawl onto her and start eating her.”

Matriphagy, or mother-eating, is exceedingly rare in nature, but Jo-Anne Sewlal, a fellow of the Zoological Society of London, says that the behavior has been documented in some species of insects, nematode worms, and other arachnids. (Read more about cannibalism in other animals.)

"While it may seem unthinkable for a child to cannibalize its mother," Sewlal says, "it's important to understand matriphagy has evolved over many generations to be the most effective means of ensuring the survival of the species."

It's All in the Family

For their study, Junghanns and colleagues set...

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