The hungry jumping spider climbed up the waterspout

POSTED 29 APR 2004
Why Files

Spider silk

Orchids fool wasps

Snails in Tahiti

How snakes dine

This jumping spider has sticky feet -- but it's no gumshoe! Photo courtesy Ed Nieuwenhuys.

New evidence on how the spider climbed up the water spout.

A scanning electron micrograph of the foot of the jumping spider Evarcha arcuata shows a tuft of eensy-weensy hairs, called setae, that grab slick surfaces (200x magnification). Photo courtesy Institute of Physics.

Each seta is densely covered with itsy-bitsy hairs, called setules. If you could, you would count 2.1 million setules per square millimeter of setae (3000x magnification).Photo: Institute of Physics.

But how? Good question. We can't climb shiny metal surfaces without magnets, say, or grappling hooks. Jumping spiders -- a widespread group that hunts prey without building webs -- lack such equipment, yet they can climb slick, waxy leaves without a care in the world -- except the constant animalian question: "Where's dinner?"

 Fat, hairy spider gazes up with bulbous eyes. How? We get a clue from Andrew Martin, at the Institute for Technical Zoology and Bionics in Bremen, Germany. He and his colleagues have jumped into the question with a close examination of a jumping spider's foot.

Using sophisticated microscopes, these researchers found that the spiders' feet were covered by hairs that branched into even finer hairs. The smallest of these, called setules, appeared in astonishing abundance; about 624,000 per spider.

The researchers measured attraction between one setule and an atomic-force microscope. Then they calculated that one spider had, theoretically, 173 times the adhesive force it would need to hang beneath a leaf. (While that's impressive, experience with other animals indicates that a real, live spider might have only 10 percent of that attraction.)

But even that would mean that a spider could hang by a single paw -- or foot.

The spider's itsy-bitsy feet climbed up the grassy stalk
Close-up shows spider foot has scores of tiny hairs. The logical explanation for the attractive force, Martin told us, is a close-range atomic attraction called the van der Waals force. If your physics is as rusty as ours, you won't mind remembering that this force grows from electrical attraction between nearby molecules. You might expect the electrons on the outside of a molecule to repel each other. But when electrons move, that creates regions that are more or less negative. As a result, Martin explains, "there will always be imbalances between negative and more negative charges, so one region is in effect more positively charged" than another.

Van der Waals forces only work within a couple of nanometers (billionths of a meter). Otherwise, our world would be very different -- much to the detriment of the glue industry.

Individual hairs have geometric patterns and triangular ends.These triangular setule tips stick to surfaces by van der Waals force (20,000x magnification). Photo: Institute of Physics.

That close-range requirement suits the capabilities of chitin, the material that composes the external skeleton of insects, spiders and other arthropods. Depending on its chemical composition and molecular arrangement, chitin can range from stiff to rubbery, says Martin. Chitin, in other words, is a smart, biological composite material.

The spiders' feathery feet, built with a flexible form of chitin, can conform to surfaces and create a strong van der Waals force.

While flies and other insects also use tiny hairs for adhesion, the fine size and resulting strong attachment makes jumping spiders resemble the gecko more than the house fly, says Martin. (Geckoes are lizards that lurk on walls in the tropics, waiting to eat insects.)

Close-up of four long, hairy structures.

Along came the rain, and washed the spider out
The beauty of the spider's sticky foot is not just strength, but reversibility. When dinner walks past, the jumping spider quickly detaches itself and leaps for lunch. "How it turns the attachment off is probably the next question that we have to answer," says Martin.

Perhaps, he suggests, the foot works like Velcro, which you detach by peeling, not lifting. (Curiously, the principle of Velcro was invented by evolution. The inventor of Velcro was fascinated by the way burrs seize cloth.)

Presumably, when the spider's brain registers "dinner at 10 o'clock high!" it starts lifting its little grabbers from the edges, preparing to jump.

And there's another parallel. Just as Velcro should work in outer space, Martin envisions astronauts clambering around with boots and gloves that stick to a spaceship like a spider sticks to grass.

If I don't catch my dinner, my face is gonna pout.

-- David Tenenbaumlittle red spider

Getting a Grip on Spider Attachment: An AFM Approach to Microstructure Adhesion in Arthropods, Antonia B Kesel et al, Smart Materials and Structures, 2004, 512-518.


The Why FilesCredits | Feedback | Search