Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

You Are What You Weave

The giant wood spider

The giant wood spider (Nephila pilipes) builds different webs depending on whether it is attempting to trap crickets or flies.

By Sean Blamires

A spider web’s architecture and the properties of its silk are a consequence of environmental conditions and the nutrients that the spider extracts from its prey.

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Spider webs are intricate constructions made from silk. Their primary function is to ensnare flying insects for the spiders to consume.

The architecture and properties of spider webs and the silks from which they are made have fascinated researchers for centuries. Nevertheless, only recently have we been able to look closely enough at webs and their constituent silks to begin to untangle the interplay between spider evolution, nutritional physiology, web architecture and silk biochemistry and biophysics.

The 40,000 or so extant species of spiders use silk in a multitude of ways to capture and consume their invertebrate prey. The most well-known is the spider web, of which the most readily recognisable is the orb web. Until relatively recently the orb web was thought to be the pinnacle of spider web evolution. However, recent molecular evidence shows that this is not the case. In fact, it appears that many lineages of spiders have repeatedly lost and reinvented the orb web over evolutionary time.

The orb web is the only animal-built structure capable of catching aerial insects in flight. At face value this might not seem much of a feat, but if we scale up the materials to sizes we are more familiar with, it is the equivalent of manufacturing a trap capable of stopping an aeroplane in full flight using highly elastic threads with a 12mm diameter.

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The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.