Love and other animals

Giving the right gift can make or break a union – just ask a spider

A gift can tell you everything – and nothing – about a relationship. It is a harbinger of future success and a measure of your similarities. There is a high social value attributed to the objects exchanged and, for some invertebrates, gifts serve a similar purpose. During mating season, a male nursery spider may deliver a nuptial gift to a female. At great personal risk from predators, he’ll capture an insect and carefully wrap it into a silken parcel for that special female. This male will have the greatest success in being accepted as a mate. No parcel means a slim chance of being selected. Those with poor gifts, say an inedible seed or empty insect husk, will receive mating privileges, but only until the female realises the gift is lacking, and storms off.

We aren’t hunting prey or building webs, but there is still a personal sacrifice in gift giving. Finding the perfect gift is stressful, especially for those people who are “difficult” to shop for. Aside from obvious financial implications, the process demands combing through every minute detail of the recipient’s life, braving the animals at department stores and producing the appropriate packaging (which unfortunately doesn’t spin right from our abdomens). However, receiving gifts can provide as much, if not more, anxiety.

A snip of tasteful ribbon, and the glittery wrappings fall away. Full of expectations, you open the box – insect husk. You ask yourself: “What were they thinking? Are they trying to tell me something? Does this person know me at all, will they ever?” Then you put on that fake smile, the ritualised expression of insincere gratefulness. A bad gift can be enough to tangle up all your holiday spirit.

For nursery spiders, gift giving proves male worth and helps propagate the species. Other types of spiders are not as lucky. A more common behaviour is sexual cannibalism, wherein the female spider eats the male after copulation. Some studies suggest nursery spiders evolved gift-giving behaviour as an alternative to this sexual suicide. However, if you have ever been on either side of a gift exchange gone wrong, you might wonder if the nursery spiders’ evolution was worth it.

We may not worry about our potential mates eating us, but there is still a lot of stock put in this obligatory gifting. Sometimes we forget we don’t have to “wrap” our whole relationship into a gift – it isn’t a measure of love. But what’s wrapped and bowed can force the mind to wonder if the connection between two people is hanging on nothing but a silken thread. Maybe it isn’t the shopping that is “difficult”. Maybe, like the nursery spider, some of us give in fear of what will happen if we don’t. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds