Spiders: The Original String Musicians

Silk can communicate structural information, inspire new materials

Jun 3, 2014
Outside Magazine
If this research has legs, string instruments are a dime a dozen worldwide.  outside online, tensile strength, spiderweb, web, string, spider, arachnid, frequency, pitch, vibration, sensory, range, tone, silk, spin

If this research has legs, string instruments are a dime a dozen worldwide.    arvitalya/ThinkStock

A group of British material scientists conducting research into how spiderwebs vibrate found signatures of musical prowess in Araneae. The researchers knew that spiders "tune" their silk to control material qualities of the silk itself as well as the tension between connecting web strings. However, they discovered that not only can spider silk be tuned across a greater range of notes than most other materials, but also that its creators get more than a feeling when they sense vibrations; spiders pick up on a vast spectrum of information from pitch and changes in pitch.

Spiders aren't known for their eyesight. Like whales, bats, and dolphins, they make up for visual deficiency with frequency sensitivity that puts perfect pitch to shame. Each spindly spider leg houses organs called slit sensillae, which differentiate between nanometer vibrations. Analyzing sonic feedback, or echoes, from plucked webs yields information about the presence of prey, qualities of potential mates, and in an interesting twist, the structural soundness of the web.  

"It might even be that spiders set out to make a web that 'sounds right' as its sonic properties are intimately related to factors such as strength and flexibility," said Beth Mortimer, a biology lecturer at Oxford and member of the Oxford Silk Group, in an interview with EurekAlert.

The physical properties of spider silk, paired with an exciting ability to convey information, could play key roles in revolutionizing materials sciences. The study's researchers, who will publish their work in a future edition of the journal Advanced Materials, believe spider silks could inspire strong, lightweight materials with built-in sensors and actuators that respond to slight shifts in vibration.

To end on a high note, as far as melodic aptitude goes, human musicians and these otters still take the lead.

Not Now

Open a World of Adventure

Our Dispatch email delivers the stories you can’t afford to miss.

Thank you!