Spiders use electricity
July 7, 2018 7:34 AM   Subscribe

Spiders Can Fly Hundreds of Miles Using Electricity. Scientists are finally starting to understand the centuries-old mystery of “ballooning.” ...Erica Morley and Daniel Robert have an explanation. The duo, who work at the University of Bristol, has shown that spiders can sense the Earth’s electric field, and use it to launch themselves into the air.
posted by agregoli (26 comments total) 38 users marked this as a favorite
That sounds fascinating. But, I would like to sleep tonight, so there is no way I'm clicking a link about spiders flying hundreds of miles. :/
posted by xedrik at 7:52 AM on July 7, 2018 [2 favorites]

Well, that’s incredibly cool. Isn’t water generally positive charged? So wouldn't the spiders floating over the ocean fall into it? Or has the wind taken over by that point, and the electric repulsion is mostly for launching?
posted by ejs at 7:54 AM on July 7, 2018 [1 favorite]

I already knew spiders were cool, but electrostatic propulsion? Stan Lee needs to update
posted by eustatic at 7:57 AM on July 7, 2018 [8 favorites]

Flying spiders!! That's insane.
How do they steer? How do they decide where to go?
Ed Yong articles are the best.
posted by sacchan at 7:57 AM on July 7, 2018 [6 favorites]

If a bunch of them got sucked into a tornado would it be like a huge cotton-candy machine?
posted by The otter lady at 8:18 AM on July 7, 2018 [8 favorites]

If a bunch of them got sucked into a tornado would it be...

...a nightmare scenario? Indeed, it would be. I don't want to get hit by no arachnado!
posted by NoMich at 8:20 AM on July 7, 2018 [6 favorites]

This is ridiculously cool.
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:26 AM on July 7, 2018

So, if I swallow eight spiders a year in my sleep, why can't the nine of us team up and all save on our commuting costs?
posted by delfin at 8:38 AM on July 7, 2018 [6 favorites]

Oh boy I love metafilter. Fascinating - thx.
posted by parki at 8:51 AM on July 7, 2018

The Earth is supposedly positively charged in general, so the spider and the silk it spins would presumably be positively charged as well.

But the sticky silk they use in their webs (but not some of the structural framework, at least) is a conductor, which has the effect of making the usually positively charged insects that fly near attract the web because the insects' positive charge induces a negative charge in the web, essentially causing the web to belly out and grab the insect.

Conductive silk wouldn't work for flying, because induced charge would cause the spider to be attracted by the Earth rather than pushed away, so I guess the breeze that's blowing when they do this must charge the silk they spin by friction as it blows past, which I think is called triboelectricity.

Which raises the question of whether they use a special silk for this purpose only, because I can imagine tangling and other problems arising in the web if a breeze could charge some part of it and the sticky parts are conductors.
posted by jamjam at 9:59 AM on July 7, 2018 [4 favorites]

That’s fascinating! I’d like to know a few more details about how it works - and I guess whether there are any tricks here which could spawn technologies.
posted by rongorongo at 10:14 AM on July 7, 2018

Awesome. So the other week when I let my boss use a DC stimulator on my arm to test it out, I was experiencing what it's like when spidey-sense is tingling!
posted by biogeo at 10:16 AM on July 7, 2018 [2 favorites]

I need a human sized hamster ball to go outside now, thanks.
posted by 80 Cats in a Dog Suit at 10:36 AM on July 7, 2018

If there was one thing I was always grateful for it was the lack of flying spiders. I'm done here.
posted by supermedusa at 10:43 AM on July 7, 2018 [1 favorite]

Don’t worry, supermedusa, only the small ones can fly. You’ll never even notice them landing in your ear canal.
posted by ejs at 11:01 AM on July 7, 2018 [8 favorites]

All you have to do is cultivate a really positive attitude, and flying spiders won't be able to land on you even if they want to, obviously.
posted by jamjam at 11:48 AM on July 7, 2018 [7 favorites]

Decades later, I still recall Wilbur the pig running around his pen, baffled, as Charlotte's children take to the air, where he cannot follow. Save for three, who decide to settle with Wilbur as his new friends.
posted by SPrintF at 1:30 PM on July 7, 2018 [4 favorites]

Tangentially related... Years ago, I took up hang gliding. After much training and practice, I was ready for my first mountain flight. It was just an early morning flight to assure the instructors that you could launch, find the LZ from a mile or so away and land safely. After all of the new students had landed, the advanced students and instructors flew in much more active conditions.

When my instructor landed, I noticed that there were a bunch of gossamer strands on his side wires. When I commented on them, he replied, "Oh yeah, that's just webs from ballooning spiders. They get sucked up in the thermals and catch on your wires," in a voice that was half field biologist and half The Right Stuff. I decided that when I was a real pilot I would land with dozens or little spider buddies, too.

Fast forward a bit and an all all grown up (aviationally speaking) flyingfox was soaring along and I started to notice a few little strands collecting on my wires. A few minutes later they were everywhere! Absolutely everywhere. Now, I like spiders but this was just crazy. That was the only time I've ever considered the drag implications of airborne spider impacts.

After landing that day a student pilot came over and asked about all of the webs on my wing. I turned to him and channeled my inner field biologist/Right Stuff test pilot and imparted my wisdom as a seasoned mountain pilot:

"When you're flying with spiders, keep your mouth closed."
posted by flyingfox at 2:04 PM on July 7, 2018 [21 favorites]

So, if I swallow eight spiders a year in my sleep, why can't the nine of us team up and all save on our commuting costs?

Spiders Georg, who lives in cave & eats over 10,000 each day, is an outlier adn can fly thousands of miles
posted by cortex at 2:32 PM on July 7, 2018 [6 favorites]

ejs: only the small ones can fly

This was actually a bit of controversy in the arachnological literature. There was a report in the 80s of ballooning by adults of the social spider Stegodypus mimosarum, which is a rather large spider. My ex-supervisor and colleagues wrote a paper calculating the probability of spider of that size being able to balloon and concluded that it was physically impossible for a large spider to balloon, and lo, they ended up finding ballooning adults of a related speces Stegodyphus dumicola, which led to a paper with the title: "Dispersal of Stegodyphus dumicola (Araneae, Eresidae): they do balloon after all!". I don't remember the details, but I seem to recall that this species stitches several strands together and makes a sort of kite which allows it to take off into the air.
posted by dhruva at 2:51 PM on July 7, 2018 [4 favorites]

Also: there was another paper a while ago that showed that spiders use static electricity to 'attract' insects to their web.
posted by dhruva at 2:56 PM on July 7, 2018 [3 favorites]

Let's go with the term "electric bugaboo" . Critters are way more than we first thought... science keeps learning more about the intricacies of things and we gain a bit more awe every day.
posted by mightshould at 4:01 PM on July 7, 2018

Ants really like low wire cable junction boxes. We had some challenges with signal quality and after installation. The installer searched the house, for interference and then went out to the pole by the house, opened the box and out fell thousands of ants... it was like an ant hose. It just kept raining ants 20 feet to the ground... for like 5 minutes.

And after that, they replaced a bunch of stuff along the street and we had great service!
posted by Nanukthedog at 6:51 PM on July 7, 2018 [3 favorites]

Point being... insects like electricity.
posted by Nanukthedog at 6:52 PM on July 7, 2018

I've always felt that spiders were underrated animals. This only solidifies that feeling. I learned a thing today!
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 7:24 PM on July 7, 2018 [2 favorites]

jamjam, I had no idea spider webs behaved that way. Thank you for informing me of this horrifying and fascinating aspect of nature.
posted by nicodine at 7:50 AM on July 9, 2018

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