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The Sound of Spiderwebs

The hills are alive with the sound of...spiderweb vibrations?

A few years ago, some scientists got real creative with the way they studied those pesky silk fractals you can't seem to stop running into on your hikes. Spiders use those webs to capture prey and communicate. But instead of getting out the broom or the shoe, the scientists got out a musical instrument and started playing.

And boy oh boy, was it beautiful.

Welcome to the world of spiders, which is not full of light and color like ours, but of vibrations and frequencies (spiders don't see very well, so they rely on vibrations instead). By translating those vibrations into music, the scientists were able to access that world in a way humans can understand.

Here's how they did it. They adopted a little Cyrtophora citricola - or tropical tent-web spider - for a pet, put him in a rectangular home, and waited for him to build his web. Note that C. citricola does not spin those pretty spiral webs characteristic of orb-weavers, but rather a three-dimensional "tent" of connected silk fibers (hence the name).

Once the little spider was finished spinning his web, the scientists used a laser to create 2D, high-definition images of the web. They then used a special algorithm to translate the 2D images into a digital 3D structure and assigned a sound frequency to each strand. They also did this process while the web was being spun.

The spider's web compared with the model of the web. From the source: Comparison between the 3D spider web and its 3D network model. (a) Picture of the 3D spider web spun by a Cyrtophora citricola spider. (b) 3D spider web model architecture on VMD. Full web assembled from 100 cube samples (76.2 × 76.2 × 76.2 mm). Complex tangle webs at the top and bottom part of the structure and very dense tent web in the middle.

With a little bit of VR technology, they created a video game of sorts where users could not only hear the music but also touch strands themselves to create their own music. The end result was Spider's Canvas. Take a listen:

The sonification process:

Sonification while the web is being constructed:

A demonstration of the VR game in action:

As you mess around with the web in the game, you can simulate the vibrations that would occur from different sources; say, the wind blowing through, or a trapped insect. Pretty cool, huh? And it gets even better. Since vibrations are primarily how spiders communicate and understand their environment, this new research might give us humans a way to communicate with spiders. Now if that's not amazing, then I don't know what is.

Next step: Find a way to communicate with Terra.

Source: Su I., et. al. (19 September 2018). Imaging and analysis of a three-dimensional spider web architecture. The Royal Society, vol. 15, issue 146.

Credit: Starr, Michelle. (22 March 2022). Scientists Translated a Spiderweb Into Music, And It's Utterly Captivating. Science alert.

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