From: Allison Winter, ENN
Published June 18, 2014 01:36 PM

"Tuning" the silk: How spiders use vibrations to learn about their prey, mates, and web

The fine craftsmanship of a spider's web helps these eight-legged arachnids catch their prey. But these silk-threaded designs can tell a spider a lot more than what they will be having for dinner.

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The spider that sits in the middle of its web monitors the silk threads for vibrations. And according to a new discovery by researchers at the Universities of Oxford, Strathclyde, and Sheffield the frequencies of these vibrations carry specific information about the prey, mates, and even the structural integrity of the web.

By firing bullets and lasers at spider silk, researchers found that compared to other materials, spider silk can be tuned to a wide range of harmonics. 

'Most spiders have poor eyesight and rely almost exclusively on the vibration of the silk in their web for sensory information,' said Beth Mortimer of the Oxford Silk Group at Oxford University, who led the research. 'The sound of silk can tell them what type of meal is entangled in their net and about the intentions and quality of a prospective mate. By plucking the silk like a guitar string and listening to the 'echoes'  the spider can also assess the condition of its web.'

This quality is used by the spider in its web by 'tuning' the silk: controlling and adjusting both the inherent properties of the silk, and the tensions and interconnectivities of the silk threads that make up the web. 

'The fact that spiders can receive these nanometre vibrations with organs on each of their legs, called slit sensillae, really exemplifies the impact of our research about silk properties found in our study,' said Dr Shira Gordon of the University of Strathclyde, an author involved in this research.

'These findings further demonstrate the outstanding properties of many spider silks that are able to combine exceptional toughness with the ability to transfer delicate information,' said Professor Fritz Vollrath of the Oxford Silk Group at Oxford University, an author of the paper. 'These are traits that would be very useful in light-weight engineering and might lead to novel, built-in 'intelligent' sensors and actuators.'

Researchers hope the findings could also inspire a wide range of new technologies, such as tiny light-weight sensors.

Read more at the University of Oxford.

Spider web image via Shutterstock.

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