Spiders tune, pluck web like a guitar, study says

spider edit

Spider tunes and plucks its web to locate prey and structural damage. Photo is from Wikimedia Commons

Who knew spiders were musically inclined?

New research has uncovered the ability in spiders to tune the silk fibers of their webs to various frequencies so that when plucked, they can instantly locate prey and structural damage to the web.

Researchers from the universities of Oxford, Strathclyde, and Sheffield in the U.K. unveiled their discovery of these amazing sonic properties of a spider's web in a paper entitled "The Speed of Sound in Silk: Linking Material Performance to Biological Function" published in the journal of Advanced Materials.


Spiders “rely almost exclusively on the vibration of the silk in their web for sensory information.” Photo from Wikimedia Commons

The discovery was made by firing bullets into a web and using lasers to measure the vibrations.

"Most spiders have poor eyesight and rely almost exclusively on the vibration of the silk in their web for sensory information," Beth Mortimer of the Oxford Silk Group who led the research at Oxford University told MailOnline.

"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."

National Public Radio created a simple animation that illustrates this perfectly:

From the Advanced Materials article:

We report that modification of silk’s modulus allows the spider to finely control the sonic properties: achieved either actively by spider spinning behavior or passively in response to the environment. Interpreting our results in the context of whole webs, we propose silk fibers are "tuned" to a resonant frequency that can be accessed through spider "plucking" behavior, which enables them to locate both prey and structural damage. Through comparison to cocoon silk and other industrial fibers, we find that spider dragline silk has the largest wave speed range of any known material, making it an ideal model for fabrication of adjustable, green multifunctional materials.

The discovery could lead to the development of supersensory devices using spider silk, such as hearing aids, National Geographic reported, or inspire a wide range of new technologies, such as tiny lightweight sensors, MailOnline reported.

"This study is fascinating," Joyce Wong, a biomaterials scientist at Boston University, told National Geographic. "I’ve worked with spider silk for years, but I’ve never contemplated its sonic properties. …[It] has opened up a new line of research and applications that I hadn’t thought about."

Dr. Chris Holland of the University of Sheffield told MailOnline that spider silks are well known for their impressive mechanical properties, but the vibrational properties have been largely overlooked.

"Now we find that they are also an awesome communication tool," Holland said. "Yet again spiders continue to impress us in more ways than we can imagine."

See how instantly a spider reacts to the signal vibrations of its web in this video provided by the Oxford Silk Group:

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