Common U.K. garden spiders have a unique way of catching their prey—with electrostatic webs. Oxford University researchers recently studied the Uloborus plumipes, commonly known as the feather-legged lace weaver or the garden center spider, to learn exactly how they weave their ultra-thin webs. Typically, spiders produce wet, sticky silk that is several micrometers thick. The lace weaver, on the other hand, produces fluffy, charged silk that is so thin it has to be measured on the nano-scale.
The research team used high resolution cameras and microscopy techniques to observe and record the spiders at work. A paper published in Biology Letters on January 27 describes the process. The Oxford team discovered that while most spiders eject their silk intact, the lace weaver spider has a more complicated processes. First, a gooey liquid is secreted from cribellum—a spinning organ which has some of the smallest silk glands ever observed. The spider then pulls on the silk and it begins to set into a solid thread. Thousands of small filaments are combed out by the spider using hairs on its hind legs. This combing and violent pulling of the thread charges the fibers and allows the spider to spin an electrostatic web that attracts insects.
So why should we care about the feather-legged lace weaver? A thorough understanding of the unique web could lead to new polymer processing technologies. The spider’s technique could be applied to commercially produce ultra-strong nano filaments in the future.