Evolutionary “dead ends” result from traits that are selectively advantageous in the short term but ultimately result in lowered diversification rates of lineages. In spiders, 23 species scattered across eight families share a social system in which individuals live in colonies and cooperate in nest maintenance, prey capture, and brood care. Most of these species are inbred and have highly female-biased sex ratios. Here we show that in Theridiidae this social system originated eight to nine times independently among 11 to 12 species for a remarkable 18 to 19 origins across spiders. In Theridiidae, the origins cluster significantly in one clade marked by a possible preadaptation: extended maternal care. In most derivations, sociality is limited to isolated species: social species are sister to social species only thrice. To examine whether sociality in spiders represents an evolutionary dead end, we develop a test that compares the observed phylogenetic isolation of social species to the simulated evolution of social and non-social clades under equal diversification rates, and find that sociality in Theridiidae is significantly isolated. Because social clades are not in general smaller than their nonsocial sister clades, the “spindly” phylogenetic pattern—many tiny replicate social clades—may be explained by extinction rapid enough that a nonsocial sister group does not have time to diversify while the social lineage remains extant. In this case, this repeated origin and extinction of sociality suggests a conflict between the short-term benefits and long-term costs of inbred sociality. Although benefits of group living may initially outweigh costs of inbreeding (hence the replicate origins), in the long run the subdivision of the populations in relatively small and highly inbred colony lineages may result in higher extinction, thus an evolutionary dead end.
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