Spiders 'tune' webs to catch prey and partners

Spiders can tune webs to help catch prey or even attract a mate, according to researchers at Oxford University.

Arachnids can control the web’s tension and stiffness so the silk transmits vibrations in different frequencies, like a plucked guitar string.

“Spiders use vibrations not only from prey which is caught in their web, where obviously it’s important that they know where it is and what it might be,” said researcher Beth Mortimer.

“But vibrations are also important in courtship. 


Beth Mortimer testing the web of the garden cross spider
Image Caption:
Beth Mortimer testing the web of the garden cross spider

“A lot of males will actually generate a very specific kind of musical pattern which the females can use to determine not only that they’re a male but they’re the right species and whether she might want to mate with them as well.”

Ms Mortimer added that spiders also use the information to assess if the web is wearing out and needs repairing.

Joint research with the Universidad Carlos III de Madrid involved taking a web from the garden cross spider and sending measured pulses into its silk strands.


The garden spider Araneus Diadematus featured in  the research
Image Caption:
The garden spider Araneus Diadematus featured in the research

They used a laser to measure the vibrations moving through the web, and were then able to prove that the waiting spider altered how much the pulses were disturbed – the amplitude – by changing the tension and stiffness of the silk.

“They’re able to very closely change the tension of their webs,” said Ms Mortimer. “This means they have a mechanism for directly controlling both the tension and the stiffness of their silk fibres.

“(These mechanisms) allow them effectively to tune their web’s properties so that they can control how sensory information is getting to them in the middle of the web.”

Researchers are now going to carry out similar tests with more exotic species, including golden orb-weaver spiders.

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