Creepy-crawly has a spin that puts Winter Olympic athletes to shame

13 Feb 2018

A flattie spider. Image: Dr Yu Zeng (2015)

While figure skaters can pull off some incredible spins, none can compete with one particular species of spider.

When it comes to catching prey, some spiders don’t need to spin a web in the hope that they might bag themselves a tasty meal.

In fact, some species are so agile that they can spin in a fraction of a second and snatch their meal as it flies or scurries past.

Now, new research conducted by a team from the University of California Merced and the California Academy of Sciences has found that one particular species – called the flattie spider – is the fastest of them all.

In a paper published to the Journal of Experimental Biology, the team found that the flattie spider can do a complete 180-degree turn in just one-eighth of a second and then strike, sensing their prey approaching from any direction.

Using high-speed footage taken by two precision cameras, the team showed that a swift flex of the spider’s long legs helps the hunters to accomplish this feat.

While it looks like a blur to the naked eye, its abilities were only observed when the footage was slowed down 40 times more than normal, with the impressive feat traced to its powerful legs.

3,000 degrees per second

Their outward stance tracks parallel to the ground, allowing for a wider range of unrestricted motion. Meanwhile, each leg also faces a separate direction, thereby covering a different slice of the 360-degree surroundings.

This allows the spider to orientate itself towards its unsuspecting prey without the target knowing what’s coming.

Similar to how figure skaters draw their arms inward to spin faster, flattie spiders pull their remaining legs in off the ground, holding them close.

This allows the graceful hunters to spin up to 40pc faster, at speeds of up to 3,000 degrees per second, and land perfectly positioned with their mouth towards that first bite of prey.

Breakthrough robotics

Their spin is the fastest leg-driven turning manoeuvre of any terrestrial animal, and also one of the fastest turns on the planet, on par with quick airborne spinners such as hummingbirds and fruit flies.

Rather than just trying to identify what the fastest spinning animal is, the team is hoping to draw inspiration from the spider to build the next generation of robotics.

“By simply observing these spiders and their natural history, we were able to make new discoveries across disciplines,” said Dr Sarah Crews of the research team.

“You just never know what path science may lead you down next. Some of the best discoveries are made by accident.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic