Spiders on the space station can weave webs without gravity

Cobwebs can sometimes seem like a nuisance rather than a wonder of nature. However, spiders have now shown how impressive their web-making abilities are by creating them in space aboard the International Space Station.

In 2008 the first experiments with space spiders began. While the spiders managed to create webs, the disaster occurred when they escaped and became co-inhabitants. This led to the webs becoming entangled, and ultimately the study shed no light on how spiders adapt to zero gravity.

Fortunately, the tests have been rerun and have interesting results. To create a web, spiders apparently don’t need gravity, they just need a light source.

Golden silk orb weaver spiders, or Trichonephila clavipes, are known for creating asymmetrical webs. They were sent into space for a second study and, during their visit to the International Space Station, the spiders did not interbreed; by remaining isolated, they were allowed to create spectacular networks.

The study authors explained how they monitored the spiders’ webs:

We evaluated the orientation of the spider in 100 fabrics based on 14 528 images, of which 14 21 showed the spider in its resting position and could therefore be used for analysis.

In space, some grids were more symmetrical than on Earth, but things changed when the lights were on. The study noted that the nets reverted to a more familiar asymmetrical pattern when the lights were turned on. With this in mind, the study has concluded that light acts as an “orientation guide during construction” in the absence of gravity.

This seems to have surprised the researchers and Samuel Zschokke of the University of Basel detailed the initial surprise:

We would not have guessed that light would play a role in the orientation of spiders in space.

We were very lucky that the lamps were placed on the top of the chamber and not on multiple sides. Otherwise, we would not have been able to discover the effect of light on the symmetry of the lattices in zero gravity.

It seems surprising that spiders have an orientation support system like this, since they have never been exposed to a gravity-free environment in the course of their evolution.

There were more surprises for the researchers during this study. The team intended to send four female spiders, but instead sent some males. Fortunately, this mishap did not affect the study too much and there was the important discovery of spiders that use light to orient themselves.

It seems that spiders can adapt quickly to new situations, even removing gravity.