Some have theorized that the universe is made completely out of strings. Some creatures, however, really see the world in strings. You know, spiders. With their spider webs.
And while we might not think of spiders as tiny musicians, their world is made up of vibrations, so perhaps that is our key to communicating with these tiny little weavers!
But first: what is a spider web?
Many types of spiders produce a strong, sticky, proteinaceous fiber from their
butt spinneret gland. They use it to build webs, sometimes quite pretty and sometimes spooky, to catch their prey in.
Fun fact: even spiders that don’t build webs produce silk, and it is important in, you know, seducing the other sex.
Spider webs are useful for many things, reproduction (as mentioned), but also to capture and immobilize prey, build nests, move around in the world (some spiders build tiny parachutes), communicate, and leave pheromonal trails. Spider silk is known to have exceptional mechanical properties, having a tensile strength comparable to that for high-grade steel, and a toughness that equals some synthetic polymers.
(Tensile strength relates to the maximum force to which a material can be pulled before breaking, while toughness relates to how much a material can deform and absorb energy before breaking. In any case, spider silk is a natural material that material scientists would just love to emulate. Biomimetics, you know.)
Spider silk is also very sticky. You know. To catch the foods.
Feelin’ those good vibrations
For those spiders who use their web to capture prey, vibrations are a key to success in their endeavor. When an unsuspecting fly, mosquito, or human, wanders into the web, it induces a vibration that the spider can easily distinguish from oscillations created by a breeze, thanks to tiny little hairs that cover their body and legs.
It is this form of communication that inspired a team of scientists to create an interactive musical instrument, using the three-dimensional structure of a spider web. This “Spider’s Canvas,” combined with virtual reality, allows people to interact and perhaps even learn to understand the vibrational language of spiders.
“The virtual reality environment is really intriguing because your ears are going to pick up structural features that you might see but not immediately recognize,” Markus Buehler of MIT explained. “By hearing it and seeing it at the same time, you can really start to understand the environment the spider lives in.”
Here’s an example of one of their spider web sonifications:
Talking to spiders
Each web strand has a different length, which the scientists translated to a sound frequency to create a musical cacophony (if we’re honest) based on the vibrations created by a perturbation. The researchers were even able to develop an algorithm to differentiate between different types of vibrations that might occur, such as “trapped prey,” “web under construction,” or “hot spider just wandered into my web and wants to get busy.
“Now we’re trying to generate synthetic signals to basically speak the language of the spider,” Buehler said. “If we expose them to certain patterns of rhythms or vibrations, can we affect what they do, and can we begin to communicate with them? Those are really exciting ideas.”
But for now, I would just like to imagine spiders as tiny little violinists, creating music with their webs, mocking the sorrowful life of the individual how just blindly wandered into their web.
Bonus number 1: Scientists gave some spiders some drugs. And then those spiders spun some webs. And they looked weird.
Bonus number 2: Here’s a song about the World’s Smallest Violin