Scientists unravel mysteries of unique Aussie spider silk

www.zmescience.com
5 min read
fairly difficult
The silk of this spider is unique. Its properties have now been analyzed in a new study.
When spiders typically weave their webs, they employ the help of the surrounding environment — whether it's plants or the corners of our houses, spiders typically use something more rigid to support their webs. But not the basket-web spider.

As the name implies, the basket-web spider builds a different type of web: one that's more similar to a container, suitable both for catching prey and for protecting its eggs.

The silk used to build the foraging web is similar to that used to make protective egg cases (and very different from the silk used to construct flexible foraging webs, like orb-webs), Professor Mark Elgar from the School of BioSciences at the University of Melbourne tells me in an email.

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As far as we know, no other spider uses this type of web. Out of the many spiders that build webs, the basket weaver is the only one whose silk is so rigid that it retains structural integrity without help from the surroundings, which allows it to be used as a dangerous, foraging trap.

Until recently, not much was known about this unique web, but a new study by Elgar and colleagues at the University of Melbourne and the University of Bayreuth with the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation sheds new light on it. The researchers looked into the structure of the silk, and according to their work, the key is in the arrangement of the silk fiber.

The basket-web spider in its natural form with its unique lobster pot web and silk, which has now been revealed as uniquely robust. Image credits: Professor Mark Elgar, the University of Melbourne.

The spider, also called Saccodomus formivorus is a member of the crab spider family, an endemic species that never really expanded past south-eastern Australia.

When entomologist William J Rainbow first described the basket-spider in 1900, he didn't seem much interested in the nature of its silk and made no mention of it. Presumably, this was because he had only seen drawings of the web and imagined…
Mihai Andrei
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