Electric fields elicit ballooning in spiders

Of all the great flyers the world has
ever known it may come as a surprise that one of the best aviators in the
animal kingdom doesn’t even possess wings spiders instead use long fans of
silk to carry them through the air often for many hundreds of miles in a process
known as ‘ballooning’ they have long been known to have flown the nest in such a way Charles Darwin himself marveled at hundreds of tiny spiders landing on the Beagle while out at sea and later recorded how they took off from the ship with great speeds even on a calm windless day during this time there were
two theories for how ballooning worked the first theory and the most obvious
explanation was that long strands of silk emitted by the spider catch the
wind and the associated drag forces pull the spider aloft but spiders will only
balloon on days where the wind is a gentle breeze which raises the questions
of how there’d be enough force to pull the silk from the spider spinnerets and
how could heavier spiders even become airborne at all the second theory was
the atmospheric electricity could also provide the force needed to get the
spider aloft similar to how your hair lifts to stand on end when you rub a balloon on your jumper spider silk could be lifted into the air by natural
electrostatic forces in the atmosphere these electric fields are present at all
times all around the world but are most noticeable during thunderstorms when
they’re at their strongest surprisingly until now the electrostatic theory of
spider ballooning had never been tested in our lab at the University of Bristol
we isolated spiders from any airflow or atmospheric electricity and generated
our own controlled electric field at levels found in nature in response the spiders began to change their behavior to perform ‘tiptoeing’
where they straighten their legs raised their abdomen and released silk this behavior is only ever seen when a spider wants to balloon furthermore once the spider was aloft its altitude could be controlled by turning the electric
field on and off this demonstrates that spiders can balloon using electrostatic forces alone but in all likelihood they would use a combination of both wind and electricity to balloon in their natural environments so how do the spiders
detect these electric fields? In this experiment it was also observed that the minute sensory hairs on the spiders exoskeleton were similarly moved by the
electric field we can then infer that spiders can feel the charge in the air using the same sensory hairs they would use to detect a breeze the results of this study show us that electrostatic forces could be an integral part of
spider ballooning and by fully understanding the mechanisms behind it
we can better describe population dynamics, dispersal, and ecological
resilience all of which are important for global ecology.

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15 thoughts on “Electric fields elicit ballooning in spiders

  1. It is at this scale that we can begin to ask serious questions about consciousness. Is the spider conscious? Can it resist the magnetic forces or must it take action to fly when it's body receives the stimulus? These kinds of examples lead to the questions: Are you conscious? Are you just reacting to stimuli? The possibility of truly unconscious life (you and me while we are sleeping, for example) begs further: What is Consciousness, is it just a manifestation of complexity, an emergent form, an emergent structure? Trippy, "…the Universe is unfolding as it should…" trippy, it could be, that's all that is really happening.

  2. Now that is truly amazing isn't it? I wonder if when we add 5G wireless everywhere that the spiders will like their own Jet Stream to ride on? Hmm? That could certainly change their success and ability to procreate if so?

  3. That's interesting. I'm a paraglider pilot and I only see spiders in the air when there is updraft in the air which is created by sun heating the surface. When there is no sun-generated updraft, there are no spiders in the air. Do the sun-generated thermals affect the electric fields also?

  4. Benefits of being Tiny!
    These small creatures know from birth how to spin a web, which type of silk to use, adjust if the wind is strong and retreat if the movements in the web are too big! They even control their movements using fluids instead of muscles!

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