Copyright ©2014 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

A spider's web is a great place to catch flies and for the spider to live. It turns out spiders can also do something quite extraordinary with their silk webs. They can tune them like musical instruments. NPR's Christopher Joyce has the story on the music of the web.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: In England, there's a scientific team called the Oxford Silk Group. No, they're not about school neckties. They study silk from animals, like spiders. Why?

BETH MORTIMER: Spider silk has been evolving for over 350 million years. And it's something that we haven't been able to re-create.

JOYCE: Beth Mortimer is a biologist at Oxford University, and she's discovered that many of the silk elements or strands in a web actually vibrate like strings on a musical instrument.

MORTIMER: If you think about something like a violin or a guitar, for certain lengths of string, you can have different pitches that come out of your instrument.

JOYCE: OK, let's take a guitar string.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUITAR)

JOYCE: The string's thickness, its length and tension determine what pitch you get. In this case, a G note. And it turns out the spiders, mostly with sensors in their legs, can distinguish between different vibrations or pitches traveling up and down the silk web. But here's something more amazing. A spider will sometimes tighten or loosen those silk strands.

MORTIMER: So it can actually very finely tune how the silk's vibrating.

JOYCE: On a guitar, kind of like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUITAR)

JOYCE: Mortimer's team used lasers to actually observe spiders tuning their webs. They describe this in the journal "Material Views". As to why they do it, well, when an insect gets snagged in the web an array of vibrations courses through it. The spider reads them, say, to locate where a struggling insect is stuck. And apparently, the web has to be tuned just right to do that. And sometimes a spider will even play the web to get information.

MORTIMER: The spider can actually pluck or bounce the silk strings.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUITAR)

MORTIMER: And it can monitor the echoes that come back, so it can locate objects.

JOYCE: Now with all those strands in a web, you can imagine with spider must be sensing when a big bug flies into it and thrashes around.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUITAR)

JOYCE: But sometimes spiders get visitors that are not prey, rather, their potential mates. Mortimer suspects the web owner can distinguish that kind of vibration from others. One can only imagine what a potential mate might sound like.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUITAR)

JOYCE: Christopher Joyce, NPR News.

Copyright © 2014 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.