Brown Recluse Spider Offers Clues to Developing Stronger Materials

Researchers are studying the way the brown recluse spider spins its webs to provide clues for developing stronger and lighter-weight materials, such as those that can be used in space.

Researchers are studying the way the brown recluse spider spins its webs to provide clues for developing stronger and lighter-weight materials, such as those that can be used in space and other applications.

A team from Virginia’s College of William & Mary and the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom have been observing the way the spider , a fearsome one known for its particularly powerful poison, creates extra-tough silk by the unique way it spins loops into each strand.

They are using this inspiration to consider how to make stronger textiles and other materials that also are light in weight, said Hannes Schniepp, an assistant professor of applied science at William & Mary.

“Rather than a cylindrical or round fiber, they make an extremely flat and thin ribbon,” he said. “We only found out while studying them that they have spinning apparatus that makes thousands of tiny loops into the silk. We then found out that these loops enhance the toughness of the material -- and that is exactly what we are always interested in: lightweight materials with outstanding mechanical properties.”

The team from both universities collaborated on a paper about their discoveries in the journal Materials Horizons, a publication of the Royal Society of Chemistry .

Brown recluse spiders don’t have the most cuddly reputation. They are extremely poisonous to humans; a bite from the venomous spider is extraordinarily painful and causes a person’s skin to become necrotic. However, despite the risk to humans— Schniepp joked that the team tries to “make sure we don’t get bitten” (and no one so far has)—the spider poses significant research value for materials scientists.

 

brown recluse spider
Researchers at the College of William & Mary in Virginia are studying the way the brown recluse spider (pictured here in a lab at the college) spins its web to provide clues for developing stronger materials, such as those that can be used in space and other applications. The work is being done in conjunction with researchers at Oxford University. (Source: Joseph McClain, College of William & Mary)

 

While most spiders spin webs to catch flying prey, the brown recluse does not spin what most people think of as a typical spider web. Its webs are concentric, spoked constructions that span sidewalks, putting them in the class of spiders known as orb weavers that aim to entangle ground-dwelling insect prey, according to researchers.

To observe the spiders safely, researchers kept them well secured in individual jars and used microscopes to get a closer look, he said.

“We use microscopes with different magnifications to study the spinning mechanism and the structure of the spun silk,” Schniepp said. “Since the spinneret of the recluse spider is so incredibly fast, we actually needed to connect a high-speed camera with our microscopes to capture more of the details.”

The team found several surprising and useful things in their observations, he said. First, the recluse spider has a fascinating spinneret totally unique among all spiders, with several moving parts, Schniepp said. “When it works, it looks a little bit like a

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