Spidey senses

20 June 2021 | Posted in Charlotte Owen , Insects
Spidey senses
Zebra spider © Peter Brooks

Spiders may not be everyone’s favourite but they are fascinating invertebrates with an array of impressive super-powers.

Spider silk is famously strong and tougher than the Kevlar fibres of a bulletproof vest. It’s also amazingly lightweight: a strand of silk long enough to go all the way around the Earth would weigh less than a bag of sugar. An individual spider can create different types of silk, varying the strength, stretch and stickiness to suit a range of tasks – from weaving webs and creating snares and egg cases to wrapping up prey and spinning safety lines to keep them securely anchored to their webs. Despite being a very fine rope, just one-tenth the diameter of a human hair, a single strand is several times stronger than steel on a like-for-like basis. You could scale this up to create a silk rope capable of supporting a person and it wouldn’t need to be anywhere near as thick as the strands of web that Spiderman slings.

Spiders can also famously walk on walls, ceilings and pretty much any other surface - though many are defeated by bath tubs. They can do this thanks to tiny hairs on their feet, which are in turn covered in even tinier hairs, giving them incredible grip. But their superpowers don’t stop there. Crab spiders are almost invisible, lurking inside flowers and changing colour to blend perfectly with the petals for the ultimate stealth attack. Wolf spiders have super speed, running at two feet per second to chase and catch their prey. The raft spider can swim, dive and even walk on water. The wasp spider is a master of illusion, mimicking the black-and-yellow warning stripes of stinging wasps to seem more dangerous. Jumping spiders can leap 14 times their own body-length. They can also dance, waving their front legs and abdomen in rhythmic patterns to woo a mate. And then there are the money spiders, 250 species all said to bring good luck. But look - is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s a spiderling, flying through the air on a wind-borne strand of silk. It seems there’s nothing they can’t do.

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