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The Recipe For A Perfectly Sticky Web May 31, 2009

Posted by Mrs Weird Scientist in Animals, Brain Power, Evolution, Insects, Tough Stuff.
Tags: , ,

Have you ever tried to bake a cake, only to find out that when it came out of the oven, it was dry and hard? Maybe you realized that you’d put in too much sugar. Or, maybe you cooked it for too long. Would you believe that spiders have a similar challenge when it comes to spinning their webs? Too much of a good thing can actually leave a web that’s far from perfect.

For this web to catch its prey, it needs to have just the right amount of stickiness and strength.  If all goes well for the spider, dinner will soon be served!

For this web to catch its prey, it needs to have just the right amount of stickiness and strength. If all goes well for the spider, dinner will soon be served!

For a spider to catch its prey, the web needs to be sticky but still remain strong. If the balance isn’t right, the web won’t catch a bug and it’ll be one hungry and grumpy spider!

A Killer Web Evolves

If you’re a spider, you’ve got your work cut out for you! To catch your prey, you want a web sticky enough that the bug gets caught inside but strong enough that the web doesn’t break from its struggles. With such a fine balance needed, spiders have evolved to get it just right.

Let the Construction Work Begin

To build those impressive webs we see, spiders start by putting down lines of dry silk. Then, they weave spirals of sticky silk to nab their prey. But, spiders of yesteryear didn’t build their webs in quite the same way.

Millions of years ago, spiders would lay down a coating of dry adhesive on these spirals. Rather than stick to the web, a bug would be entangled by these dry spirals. As a cool fact you can throw out at your friends, there are still some spiders today that weave their webs with this dry adhesive – we call them deinopoid spiders.

Yet things began to change, with orb weaving spiders evolving to make webs that were more effective at catching prey. Rather than continue to use this dry adhesive, spiders started to go the sticky route by using wet drops of a glue-like substance. When you think of glue, it seems that the sticker the glue, the better. Not for spiders though!

Curious Scientists Start Investigating

Some scientists started to wonder about these sticky webs – is stickier always better? To find out, Ingi Agnarsson of the University of Puerto Rico in San Juan and Todd Blackledge of the University of Akron in Ohio went on a mission to check out a lot of different spiders. They observed 17 species of orb weaving spiders. You’d have to like spiders quite a bit to watch so many different kinds! The full study results are in the Journal of Zoology.

It’s All About Force

The researchers tested the strength of the strands and the stickiness of them too. How’d they do that? Well, they stuck a piece of sandpaper in the web and then measured how much force was required to remove it.

To break a strand on the web, a specific amount of force is needed. When the researchers put the web to the test, they found that by using anywhere from 20% to 70% of this force needed to break the web, the sandpaper was released.

So, a stickier web might hold the insect but as it continues to struggle, the force would ultimately break strands of the web, causing the insect to be released. Yet, with the glue being a bit less sticky, the insect could pull away from a single strand, but it would get caught by the next one. Since the strands don’t break, they can continue to stick to the bug, making its fight a much harder one.

Spiders Are Impressive

It’s actually really impressive and cool when you think about the work that goes into creating a web with just the right balance of stickiness and strength. As for me, I’ll leave the bug-catching to those smart spiders. I think I’ll just stick to making cakes instead. Pun fully intended! Now if only there was a recipe for making good jokes…

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1. littleman123 - June 16, 2009

have you seen a deinopoid spider or have you just ead about it.

2. Miss Weird Scientist - June 16, 2009

I haven’t seen one and I’m very happy for that! Eep! ;)

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