Engineers unlock spiderweb secrets with lasers and bullets

By Casey Frye, CCNN Writer

If a spider’s web gets messed up, they can tell how to balance it using subtle vibrations.

Spiders are some of nature’s most talented engineers, constructing dazzling webs to capture their prey and sense the world around them. Because the eight-legged critters have poor eyesight, they rely on the complex and subtle vibrations of their silky strands to perceive the world. In order to create similarly sensitive technology, human engineers fired lasers and bullets at spider silk to unlock its secrets.

We’ve all had the unpleasant experience of walking through a spiderweb, then doing a little dance as we swat away imaginary spiders and get those icky strings off our bodies. So, why would scientists unload guns on the soft material? Well, spider silk actually has incredible maximum-strength engineering potential, and can be used to create substances that are better than bulletproof vests!

However, what this most recent study focused on was the way spiders feel the tingling vibrations of their webs. So, after firing the bullets and lasers, scientists used super-high-speed cameras to capture the silk’s responsive movements. What they found is that the stringy threads can carry tunes, kind of like violins, and that spiders “hear” the vibrations through their legs using organs called slit sensillae.

In fact, the spider can even tell how damaged its web is and intelligently apply pressure, tension, and weaving combinations that will restore the silky strength. Learning how to mimic this with technology would create a spider-sense kind of like what Spider-Man uses, and could lead to lightweight engineering with artificially intelligent sensors.

Featured image courtesy of Kool Kats Photography on Flickr. Image of messy spiderweb courtesy of Maggie-Me on Flickr.