Sonic Spiderwebs

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In the Journal of the Royal Society Interface published in September 2016, researchers from Oxford University and Universidad Carlos III de Madrid discussed spiders’ extraordinary ability to shape the physical properties of their webs. They discovered that spiders fine-tune their silk strings exactly like the strings of a musical instrument.

The arachnids gather information about the web tension by plucking the string and sensing the vibratory information in their legs. The string is then tuned — loosened or tightened — based on vibration (pitch), to allow the creatures to detect the transverse waves (waves that vibrate at right angles to the direction of its spread), and longitudinal waves (waves that vibrate in the direction of propagation) emanating from the source of whatever is affecting the web. This gives them direct information about the conditions and integrity of their creation, as well as whether it is prey or a potential mate that is present.

It is essential that the web is finely tuned in order for the spider to know exactly where on the web something has landed. Once an object is in the web, the spider can also “play” the strings to interpret vibrational responses and more accurately locate the newcomer, through a sort of arachnid triangulation method. The researchers agreed that spider silk, which has been evolving for over 350 million years, has developed its properties for the very purpose of these high fine-tuning and data transmission abilities. Wow! Little magical musical monsters!