This Spider Uses a Silk Slingshot to Hurl Itself at Prey

At first glance, the triangle-weaver spider, Hyptiotes cavatus, builds a web like any other spider. But once an insect hits that web, something damn near logic-defying happens. Sitting in one corner of the triangle, the spider seems not so much to crawl but to teleport an inch closer to the struggling prey, then another inch, then another, as the web—sequentially slackened—collapses on the insect.

The spider isn’t teleporting, of course, but it is pulling off something almost as improbable. With its front legs, it tugs a thread within the larger structure of the web, building up tension. With its back legs, it holds another thread that anchors it to a surface such as a branch, but it leaves lots of slack. That extra thread coils up near its spinneret, or silk-manufacturing organ.

When the spider releases the coiled anchoring line, the arachnid rockets forward with astonishing speed. University of Akron entomologist Sarah Han, lead author on a new paper describing the spider’s technique in the journal PNAS, and her colleagues clocked a max (albeit very brief) acceleration of 773 meters per second squared. That equates to a dizzying 79 g’s. If sustained that acceleration would more than wallop a human. Fighter pilots, for example, can pull about 9 g’s before passing out.

Sarah Han

“It’s kind of like if you’re hauling yourself up on a rope,” says Han. “It just does this leg-over-leg motion, moving backwards toward the branch. That pulls the whole triangle part of the web also toward the branch, and that’s what makes it taut.”

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The process is known as power amplification. It’s the core of human technologies like a bow and arrow, which stores your muscle power in the cable, or a hand-cranked catapult, which stores tension in twisted rope. Suddenly releasing all that built-up energy means you can fire arrows or boulders or giant wooden rabbits with incredible power.

Or in the spider’s case, it’s firing its web and itself. “As the web is released, all the stored tension moves the web forward very rapidly,” says Han, “and these sticky capture threads will move across the prey’s body, further capturing it.” That turns out to be essential to the spider’s hunting efficiency: The researchers found that without the release of the web, prey escaped every time, but with release, the predator could catch three quarters of all prey. Plus, it’s likely that because those extra threads are trapping the victim, the spider is able to capture larger prey than it would if it built a more traditional web.

There doesn’t even seem to be anything particularly special about the spider’s silk, other than it being a bit stiffer than other spiders’. That would make sense from a materials standpoint—if the silk were too elastic, the spider would have to pull back much farther to get the same tension to launch the web. Think how hard it would be to fire an arrow if the bow’s cable were relaxed instead of taut.

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