Scientists have spent decades working to understand how spiders spin their impossibly detailed, symmetrical webs. Despite those years of research, scientists remain baffled as to certain intricacies of web-weaving. For example, what gives spider silk its unique elasticity? Most recently, Johns Hopkins University researchers explored precisely how spiders build webs, creating a sort of web-building playbook by studying spiders that build using only their sense of touch. To explore this side of spider webs, researchers had to employ night vision, artificial intelligence, and a lot of creativity.
Examining Spider Webs Through a Research Lens
Studying spiders was a natural fit for Andrew Gordus, a Johns Hopkins behavioral biologist and the senior author of “Distinct movement patterns generate stages of spider web building,” a study recently published in Current Biology. “I first got interested in this topic while I was out birding with my son,” Gordus told Science Daily. “After seeing a spectacular web I thought, ‘if you went to a zoo and saw a chimpanzee building this you’d think that’s one amazing and impressive chimpanzee.'” Gordus adds: “Well, this is even more amazing because a spider’s brain is so tiny, and I was frustrated that we didn’t know more about how this remarkable behavior occurs.” With that in mind, Gordus led a team to create a definitive “choreography” for spider web building.
Mapping Spider Web Choreography
To create the aforementioned “choreography,” the researchers first had to study spiders’ behaviors and motor skills. This would, in theory, help the team understand how spiders – creatures with relatively small brains – complete these “high-level construction projects.” Interestingly, scientists have never before recorded this kind of web-building documentation. The team started with a type of tiny spider known as a hackled orb weaver, known for weaving its web under the cover of darkness. Not only did the researchers study the weaver, but also they designed an “arena” complete with infrared cameras and lights to monitor the spiders’ activity as they constructed webs. The team even used machine vision software to track the spiders’ microscopic leg actions as they built.
“They’re All Using the Same Rules”
After careful observation, the researchers drew several conclusions.
First, the team concluded that web-making behaviors are fairly similar across spiders, which could bode well for future research. “Even if the final structure is a little different, the rules they use to build the web are the same,” Gordus said. “They’re all using the same rules, which confirms the rules are encoded in their brains. Now we want to know how those rules are encoded at the level of neurons.” Finally, the team was able to create a “web-building playbook” to detail exactly how spiders construct their webs with such geometric precision. Ultimately, the researchers hope to use these findings to fuel future research into complex brain systems. “The spider is fascinating,” Corver said, “because here you have an animal with a brain built on the same fundamental building blocks as our own, and this work could give us hints on how we can understand larger brain systems, including humans, and I think that’s very exciting.”
Could spider webs help researchers further explore the complex brain systems of spiders – and humans? Further research is necessary, of course. For now, the Johns Hopkins team has created a “playbook” that may delver deeper into spider behavior than ever before.
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