Not Exactly Rocket Science

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Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchThere is an old joke that if Spider-Man has the powers of a spider, he really ought to be shooting webs from somewhere less salubrious than his hands. In the films and comic books, Peter Parker is empowered with the powers of a human-sized arachnid through a spider bite. He effortlessly scales walls and ceilings and shoots sticky webs from his wrists. Now, scientists have found a type of spider that does just that.

i-1d4e751d80804b8f188f0eddb1042d4c-Aphonopelma_seemannii.jpgLike Spider-Man, most spiders can climb sheer surfaces and they do so with two techniques. The most obvious are small claws, called tarsi, that grip onto rough surfaces. Going down in scale, their feet also end in thousands of tiny hairs. These hairs make such close contacts with the microscopic troughs and crests of seemingly smooth surfaces that they stick using the same forces that hold individual molecules together.

But Stanislav Gorb and colleagues from the Max Planck Institute have found that one species of spider uses a third method, which exploits that most characteristic of spider traits – silk. All spider species spin silk from appropriately named organs on their rear ends called spinnerets. But uniquely to spiders, the Costa Rican zebra tarantula (Aphonopelma seemanni) from spins silk from its feet as well.

Gorb watched the tarantulas climbing up glass plates, and saw that they left behind silken footprints – dozens of fibres, just a thousandth of a millimetre wide. As the spider climbs, four of its legs leave the glass plate at any one time. As the legs land, they begin to slip but small nozzles secrete a viscous silken fluid that rapidly hardens and adheres to the surface. The silk acts as a tether, firmly holding the spider to the pane.

Spider silk is fantastically versatile and webs alone consist of several different types. As well as catching food, spiders use silk to create egg sacs, protect themselves and even travel by catching the wind. But this is the first time that silk has been documented as a rappelling aid and it throws up some questions about how it came to be used this way.

The tarantula group includes the largest of all spiders, some the size of a human hand. Gorb suggests that they may have evolved an extra source of traction to support their large bulk and prevent harmful falls. Alternatively, rather than being a new innovation, the zebra tarantula’s silken footsteps might reflect how the first spiders spun silk, with the specialised spinnerets only evolving later.

Finding how many species spin silk from their feet and the genes that control this will give the scientists further insights into how this incredible ability evolved.

Reference: Gorb, S.N., Niederegger, S., Hayashi, C.Y., Summers, A.P., Vötsch, W., Walther, P. (2006). Biomaterials: Silk-like secretion from tarantula feet. Nature, 443(7110), 407-407. DOI: 10.1038/443407a

Comments

  1. #1 Patrick
    July 13, 2008

    That’s interesting that this turned up in A. seemanni as they are a terrestrial spider preferring a deep burrow rather than climbing. I currently have a spiderling A seemanni, I’ll keep an eye on that as she/he gets bigger.

    I’ve seen my full grown G. rosea climb straight up, it’s quite something. Doesn’t do it often, and it scares the crap out of me when she does as she’s a big girl. Wonder if that’s how she’s doing it.

    I would shocked if this did not turn up in the aboreal species. I’ve noticed gunk on the walls of my terrariums, but never thought it might come from their feet.

  2. #2 Skwee
    July 19, 2008

    Come to think of it, I’ve seen lots of silky smears on the walls of my Grammostola aureostriata‘s tank. Then again, she has a tendency to get it stuck all over her body.

  3. #3 Skwee
    July 20, 2008

    By the way, Ed, I just discovered your blog & it’s my new favorite ScienceBlog. Just thought you should know that.

  4. #4 Ed Yong
    July 20, 2008

    Thanks Skwee – much appreciated.

  5. #5 Skwee
    July 20, 2008

    You’re welcome.

  6. #6 Zach Miller
    April 24, 2009

    I would be surprised at all if this technique is basal to all spiders, seeing as tarantulas are among the most primitive living spiders. And I think, developmentally speaking, spinnerettes are basically tiny little legs.

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