Spiders, it turns out, are some of nature's finest musicians. Researchers from the universities of Oxford, Strathclyde and Sheffield have recently discovered that spider webs can be tuned to a wide range of harmonics, and that the spiders themselves are doing the tuning, reports Nature World News.
This isn't the first time that people have considered the potential of spider web as a string instrument. For instance, one violin-maker recently used webbing to spin strings for a violin. But this is the first evidence that spiders harness the musical prowess of their own webs.
This doesn't mean that arachnids everywhere are secretly hosting jam sessions and crooning spider folk ballads. Rather, it seems that spiders tune their webs in such a way to garner sensory information about their environment based on the vibrations. They are essentially using their webs like an external sense organ.
"Most spiders have poor eyesight and rely almost exclusively on the vibration of the silk in their web for sensory information," wrote 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."
In order to properly gather this kind of information from their webs, the spiders must also tune their instrument accordingly. They meticulously control and adjust both the inherent properties of the silk and the tensions of the threads.
Researchers were able to decode this musical world of spiders thanks to high-speed cameras, which captured the vibrations moving in ultra-slow motion. Lasers were also used to make detailed, quantifiable measurements of even the smallest vibration.
"These findings further demonstrate the outstanding properties of many spider silks that are able to combine exceptional toughness with the ability to transfer delicate information," wrote co-author Fritz Vollrath.
Researchers hope that by studying how spiders tune their webs, they can develop new technologies that make use of sonic information in a similar fashion. For instance, because spider web is so thin, it could lead to the development of super-lightweight sensors.
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