Spiders lack ears and most of them do not have great vision. This can seem like a major impediment to hunting, defending, or simply surviving. For this reason, these small animals use the characteristic fabric that they weave to help them in their day to day life. It is through the vibrations of the cobwebs that they can notice the presence of insects in the vicinity and communicate with other individuals in a way that is imperceptible to humans. However, a team of researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has developed a virtual reality system that transforms the waves produced in spider webs into music that is recognizable to our ears.
When an object vibrates, it produces waves that reach us through the air or some solid channel, such as the ground. Only waves ranging from 20 to 20,000 hertz (Hz) are perceptible to humans. The vibrations produced by the cobweb threads vary depending on their size and elasticity, but in no case are they captured by the human ear. Diego Barrales, from Institute of Biology of the National Autonomous University of Mexicoexplains: “Spiders have very sensitive organs, known as trichobotria, through which they can perceive vibrations, even those that are very weak.” Barrales, who manages the Twitter account @Arachno_Things, dedicated to the dissemination and resolution of doubts about these animals, assures: “We would say that spiders they listen in this way”. These stiff hair-like sensors are mainly found on the legs, although they are also present on other parts of the body.
This differentiation between the vibrations produced by each thread and the sensitivity of the trichobotries allows them to interpret what is happening in the web. Barrales says: “The movements of a dam are very different from those of a potential mate. In addition, spiders can determine where on the web the vibration is occurring. Based on this, it is known that males can send messages to the owners of the cobwebs, so that they know that they are not food ”.
Researchers at MIT have identified the waves emitted by each string and, with a synthesizer, have transformed them into a sound similar to that emitted by a harp. Using laser imaging, they have constructed a 3D map of the spider web of a Cyrtophora citricola at the same time that it was weaving. Markus Buehler, one of the developers of the experiment, explains: “In this way, we can explore through sound the time sequence of how the web is built.” Thanks to this, the user can see and hear just as one of these arthropods would with its web and get very close to the real sensation. Thus, the threads closest to the user sound louder than those that are further away.
“The web can be seen as an extension of the spider’s body. He lives there, but he also uses it as a sensor ”, says Buehler to the magazine New scientist. “When you enter the world of virtual reality and immerse yourself in the cobweb, being able to hear what is happening allows you to understand what you are seeing,” he says.
The next step is to decode the vibrations produced by the spiders themselves to understand what they are saying and to be able to communicate with them.
The project developers do not stop there and want to turn the experiment around. The vibrations that spiders produce in the web can be classified according to the activity they are doing. In this way, you could determine what each message means and establish communication with them. Buehler comments: “Now we are trying to generate synthetic signals to speak the language of spiders. If we expose them to certain rhythms or vibrations, can we influence what they do? Can we communicate with them? They are very interesting ideas ”.
Marcos Méndez, professor of Ecology in the area of Biodiversity and Conservation at the Rey Juan Carlos University, considers it feasible to establish these communication channels: “We can send vibration patterns that spiders can understand in the same way that those who work with birds can record songs to attract males or females. The vibrations that make prey, or that make pairs, can be reproduced and trigger reactions in the spiders. This may make scientific sense and relevance. But really, communicating with other species can’t go very far. ” In addition, Méndez also sees other projections in the future: “Showing the inaudible vibrations of a solid element can have applications in human constructions, such as the detection of structural defects”, believes the professor. Finally, Méndez believes that this experiment can improve the image that people have of arachnids: “Hear sing whales have surely awakened the empathy of the public towards these animals. That spiders are able to perceive song through his fabrics he makes this group much closer ”.