Spiders Play Silk Harps

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Posted on September 7, 2016 in Amazing Facts, Biomimetics, Darwin and Evolution, Intelligent Design, Philosophy of Science, Physics, Terrestrial Zoology

Spider webs are so finely-tuned, they are like musical instruments that the creatures can strum or listen to.

Here’s an article showing how science can be reported without Darwinese. In “Tuning the instrument: Spider webs as vibration transmission structures,” PhysOrg reports work on spider webs by scientists from Madrid and Oxford. The emphasis is on the fine-tuning of spider webs for sensing vibrations as a source of information to the spider. The article treats a spider web as a virtual musical instrument:

Two years ago, a research team led by the University of Oxford revealed that, when plucked like a guitar string, spider silk transmits vibrations across a wide range of frequencies, carrying information about prey, mates and even the structural integrity of a web.

Amazing FactsNow, a new collaboration between Oxford and Universidad Carlos III de Madrid has confirmed that spider webs are superbly tuned instruments for vibration transmission — and that the type of information being sent can be controlled by adjusting factors such as web tension and stiffness.…

Spiders carefully engineer their webs out of a range of silks to control web architecture, tension and stiffness, analogous to constructing and tuning a musical instrument.

The scientists used lasers to measure the frequency responses of webs, even detecting ultra-fine vibrations. Then, they used computer models to relate the vibrations to the web material. The short PhysOrg article mentions “tuning” five times, once saying “superbly tuned” and once saying “highly tuned” of the webs. The spiders behave like tiny acoustical engineers, if not craftsmen of fine musical instruments:

These new observations propose that the spider can use behaviour and silk properties to control the function of its web instrument. These control mechanisms could alter vibration filtering, as well as orientation to and discrimination of vibration sources in the web.

Scientists are not attributing aesthetic sensibilities to spiders, of course, but they do find it remarkable how spiders can fine-tune their structures to maximize information. One researcher seems to get a little emotionally involved in the wonder of the phenomenon he studies:

Professor Fritz Vollrath, Head of the Oxford Silk Group, added: ‘It is down to the interaction of the web materials, a range of bespoke web silks, and the spider with its highly tuned behaviour and armoury of sensors that allows this virtually blind animal to operate in a gossamer world of its own making, without vision and only relying on feeling. Perhaps the web spider can teach us something new about virtual vision.’

Another type of spider doesn’t spin webs, but uses silk ingeniously in another way. It’s the trapdoor spider. Inhabiting North America, Asia, Africa and Australia, these spiders dig crypts with hidden doors, hinged with silk so that they can open them quickly. Special silk “tripwires” help them sense vibrations from passing insects. Though sitting silently in the dark most of their long lives (up to 20 years), trapdoor spiders can sense the vibrations above ground and discriminate prey from other sources. A cricket or ant doesn’t stand a chance with the predator’s quick door-opening and capture action. Good thing these creatures are not human sized! It would be a nightmare scenario to be pulled into the dark by a vicious predator, stabbed and injected with poison, waiting to be eaten.

Science Daily discusses the trapdoor spiders of Australia. Because they are so well hidden, nobody knows how many species there are. A PhD student at Griffith University is studying them. He mentions evolution, but not with any evidence or understanding:

Mr [Jeremy] Wilson wants to delve further into how the species and its trapdoors have evolved.

If we know why evolution occurs and why different species occur then we can predict how things like climate change and deforestation could affect these spiders in the future.

There’s so much work that needs to be done and it’s important work because these spiders get overlooked. They live in trapdoors and no one sees them.”

Though people may find them scary, Wilson adds that trapdoor spiders “have an important role to play in the ecosystem” as the top invertebrate predators in the food chain. We don’t want too many ants, crickets and flies around, do we?

Update 9/07/16: Scientists are looking to spider webs for new materials that can attenuate sound. PhysOrg reports that European scientists noticed how the concentric rings of the webs absorb different frequencies. Here’s how to design a new, lightweight soundproofing material:

The acoustic advantages of the spider web arise, at least in part, from the concentric circles, or “rings,” of the web. These rings resonate at a particular frequency when exposed to vibrations. Based on this natural architecture, the researchers designed the acoustic metamaterial to have square units containing resonating rings with supporting ligaments that radiate outward from the center of the rings. The design could be incorporated into many diverse man-made structures.

Five parameters would allow acoustic engineers to finely tune the materials for best absorption. Their “bio-inspired design” could apply from the small scale to large scale, including attenuation of seismic waves.

Does anyone need to hear a story about how these creatures “evolved” their skills? Would that add anything to understanding? Look, biologists: just study the phenomenon, describe the design and its function, and help the world learn more about these amazing creatures. A scientist doesn’t have to mention God or creation or even get rhapsodic. The listener can draw his or her own conclusions. What’s useless and harmful is to spin stories, blow fogma, and force-fit observations into a secular materialist ideology. The first article set a good example. The second was OK until the researcher started talking in Darwinese propaganda. (He probably needed to mention evolution and climate change to get his degree.)

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