How Electrically-Charged Spider Webs Could Help Us Solve World Pollution

By Ajit Jha on January 16, 2014 10:02 AM EST

Spiderweb
Spider webs use electric charges to catch everything around them, from prey to environmental chemicals. (Photo: Hugo A. Quintero/Flickr)

A study by Oxford University Scientists published in Naturwissenschaften (The Science of Nature) found that spider webs are coated with electrically conductive glue that help spiders catch nearly everything from pollen and pollutants to flying insects in their web. The glue spirals can gain access to nearly all charged particles within the field of web charge, and can even distort the nearby electric field.

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The study explains why spider webs actually spring towards insects, and how efficiently the webs can collect small airborne particles. A major implication of this study, according to researchers, is the use of common spider webs for environmental monitoring - they may be more efficient than expensive industrial sensors.

These webs are "perfect active filters of airborne pollutants including aerosols and pesticides" according to Dr.  Fritz Vollrath of Oxford's Department of Zoology (and the lead author of the study). "Electrical attraction drags these particles to the webs, so you could harvest and test webs to monitor pollution levels- for example, to check for pesticides that might be harming bee populations," he said to Science Daily.

The shape of the webs, according to Vollrath, could reveal the presence of airborne chemicals. It is known that spiders help recycle webs by eating them along with the particles they've gathered during their time as a food trap. We already know that different drugs induce spiders to weave different webs. While on LSD, they can weave beautiful webs, while caffeine compels them to produce poor webs. So, according to Vollrath, we might be able to deduce what chemicals the spiders have ingested based on the webs they weave.

The Vollrath and his team also found that common webs can create distortions in the Earth's electric field that many insects like bees are able to detect. Almost all flying insects can sense electrical disturbance with the help of their antennae that wok like e-sensors. However, it is not yet clear whether insects would be able to sense electrical disturbances from webs in time to avoid being caught, since the electrical disturbance is extremely short ranged. What is clear, however, is that electrostatic charges play a critical role in the insect kingdom.  

The static electricity that builds up in airborne objects, according to Vollrath, is often underestimated. In the study, he brings up the fact that a possible cause of the Hindenburg disaster might have been the static electricity in the air. Helicopters that discharge suddenly while landing have been known to explode, Vollrath said. Therefore, it would be an interesting study to see how spiders make use of this electricity to catch their prey. In addition, the study opens a huge scope to make their use to track pesticide and air quality around the world, according to Vollrath.

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