OXFORD, England (Reuters) - Spiders can control the tension and stiffness of their webs to optimize their sensory powers, helping them locate and identify prey as well as partners, according to researchers at Oxford University.
Much in same way that notes travel along a plucked guitar string, spider silk transmits vibrations in different frequencies, sending information back to the spider.
"Spiders use vibrations not only from prey which is caught in their web, where obviously it's important that they know ...where it is and what it might be," researcher Beth Mortimer told Reuters.
"But vibrations are also important in courtship ... A lot of males will actually generate a very specific kind of musical pattern which the females can use to determine not only that they're a male but they're the right species and whether she might want to mate with them as well."
Spiders can also use the information to assess their web's condition, she said.
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As part of a study published last month in collaboration with the Universidad Carlos III de Madrid, researchers in Oxford took a web from the garden cross spider - Araneus diadematus - and sent measured pulses into its silk strands.
They used a laser to measure vibrations propagating through the web, showing how the waiting spider altered wave amplitude by changing tension and silk stiffness.
"They're able to very closely change the tension of their webs... This means they have a mechanism for directly controlling both the tension and the stiffness of their silk fibers," Mortimer said.
"(These mechanisms) allow them effectively to tune their web's properties so that they can control how sensory information is getting to them in the middle of the web."
Mortimer plans to conduct similar tests with more exotic species, including golden orb-weaver spiders.
(Reporting By Matthew Stock; editing by John Stonestreet)