Innate pattern recognition and categorization in a jumping spider
The East African jumping spider Evarcha culicivora feeds indirectly on vertebrate blood by preferentially preying upon blood-fed Anopheles mosquitoes, the vectors of human malaria1, using the distinct resting posture and engorged abdomen characteristic of these specific prey as key elements for their recognition. To understand perceptual categorization of objects by these spiders, we investigated their predatory behavior toward different digital stimuli - abstract ‘stick figure’ representations of Anopheles constructed solely by known key identification elements, disarranged versions of these, as well as non-prey items and detailed images of alternative prey. We hypothesized that the abstract images representing Anopheles would be perceived as potential prey, and would be preferred to those of non-preferred prey. Spiders perceived the abstract stick figures of Anopheles specifically as their preferred prey, attacking them significantly more often than nonpreferred prey, even when the comprising elements of the Anopheles stick figures were disarranged and disconnected from each other. However, if the relative angles between the elements of the disconnected stick figures of Anopheles were altered, the otherwise identical set of elements was no longer perceived as prey. These data show that E. culicivora is capable of making discriminations based on abstract concepts, such as the hypothetical angle formed by discontinuous elements. It is this inter-element angle rather than resting posture that is important for correct identification of Anopheles. Our results provide a glimpse of the underlying processes of object recognition in animals with minute brains, and suggest that these spiders use a local processing approach for object recognition, rather than a holistic or global approach. This study provides an excellent basis for a comparative analysis on feature extraction and detection by animals as diverse as bees and mammals.