Good vibrations: Spider webs observed carrying information

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By firing bullets at spider webs and studying the vibrations with high-speed cameras, researchers from the universities of Oxford, Strathclyde, and Sheffield have observed that spider silk can carry a wide range of frequencies.

Using high speed cameras and lasers to record the vibrations of the web, the researchers have said the silk can transmit vibrations so that, when plucked like a guitar string, its sound carries information about prey, mates, and even the structural integrity of a web.

The findings, to be reported in the journal Advanced Materials, not only reveal more about spiders but could also inspire a wide range of new technologies, such as tiny light-weight sensors.

'Most spiders have poor eyesight and rely almost exclusively on the vibration of the silk in their web for sensory information,' said Beth Mortimer of the Oxford Silk Group at Oxford University, who led the research. 'The sound of silk can tell them what type of meal is entangled in their net and about the intentions and quality of a prospective mate. By plucking the silk like a guitar string and listening to the echoes the spider can also assess the condition of its web.'

This quality is used by the spider in its web by tuning the silk: controlling and adjusting both the inherent properties of the silk, and the tensions and interconnectivities of the silk threads that make up the web. To study the sonic properties of the spider's gossamer threads the researchers used ultra-high-speed cameras to film the threads as they responded to the impact of bullets. In addition, lasers were used to make detailed measurements of even the smallest vibration.

'The fact that spiders can receive these nanometre vibrations with organs on each of their legs, called slit sensillae, really exemplifies the impact of our research about silk properties found in our study,' said Dr Shira Gordon of the University of Strathclyde, an author involved in the research.

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