With Halloween season approaching, spider web-themed decorations are sure to start appearing on porches and store shelves. There are a vast number of reasons why spider webs captivate our imagination, including the fact that very few animals on the planet are able to construct such beautiful and deadly creations. Spider webs have become a staple of horror and science fiction due to their terrifying ability to capture prey, and a new discovery might give arachnophobes a new reason to fear the eight-legged little demons: an international team of researchers has discovered a surprising new musical property of webs that has caught the ear of arachnologists around the world.
This new research has found that spiders construct and tune their webs like musical instruments, fine tuning each individual strand of their webs to a specific tension. Doing so allows spiders to know exactly where in their webs prey has landed, creating a kind of acoustic location device.
According to this newly published research, spider webs are a perfect conduit for vibrations, and are able to be perfectly tuned by spiders during a web’s construction:
Spider orb webs are multifunctional, acting to absorb prey impact energy and transmit vibratory information to the spider. […] both transverse and longitudinal wave amplitude in the web can be adjusted through changes in web tension and dragline silk stiffness, i.e. properties that can be controlled by the spider.
As each thread is stimulated/plucked by an insect or other object flying into it, it creates a specific frequency of vibration which the spider can use to locate where in its web prey has landed. The researchers behind this finding claim that this acoustic, instrument-like property of webs is created through spiders’ careful manipulation of the tension of each individual thread in a web as webs are constructed:
Radial thread tension affects this kind of information flow, and tensions are closely monitored and controlled by spiders during web construction with the animal potentially altering web tension in response to changes in environmental conditions and even prey presence.
Aside from these acoustic properties, spider silk is currently a hot topic of research in physicis and materials engineering. The chemicals in spider silk have been eyed for use in adhesives, while the silk itself has been speculated to be an acoustic dampening metamaterial for soundproofing. No word yet on the development of real spider silk-shooting wrist-based web thingies, but fingers crossed – or whatever you call that thing Spiderman does with his hands.