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WebClawer, the spider edition: Happy face spiders, scientists toughen spider silk with metal, "zombie" spiders survive drowning

April 27, 2009 |  8:32 pm

Golden orb weaver spider Are spiders taking over the world?  Well, no.  But you wouldn't know that to look at the headlines from around the globe today:

-- Researchers at France's University of Rennes wondered why some species of spider were able to survive long periods of time underwater.  They conceived a study wherein members of three species of wolf spider were immersed in sea water for periods of 24 hours or more.  What happened next, quite frankly, terrifies us to our very souls.  The scientists, hoping to weigh the spiders they believed to be dead, removed them from the water.  Hours later, the spiders twitched back to life.  "This is the first time we know of arthropods returning to life from comas after submersion," lead researcher Julien Pétillon said.  And it gets worse: according to Pétillon, there "could be many other species that could do this that we do not know of yet."  (National Geographic)

-- A tiny arachnid called the Hawaiian happy face spider looks the way its name suggests it would. Researchers are studying the spiders to learn how and why they would have developed such markings. A leading theory is that the smiley-face design confuses potential predators, perhaps giving them momentary pause -- and the spiders a chance to escape. Regardless of the reasons, ecologists say the cheerful-looking spiders are a powerful symbol for conservation. "They are ambassadors for all the threatened invertebrates, insects and spiders on Hawaii," said Dr. Geoff Oxford of the University of York. "Conservationists are using them to highlight the plight of native species, and you can't go far on the islands without seeing them on T-shirts, baseball caps, post cards and even removal trucks." (Telegraph )

-- Spider silk is tougher than steel (and a heck of a lot lighter). But scientists say they've improved on nature, using a process called atomic layer deposition to add metals like zinc, titanium and aluminum to the already strong substance.  The result, they write in the journal Science, is three times tougher than regular spider silk and could have uses not only in the creation of heavy-duty textiles but also in the manufacture of artificial bones and tendons.  "It could make very strong thread for surgical operations," researcher Seung-Mo Lee of the Max Planck Institute of Microstructure Physics, who lead the project, added.  Lee said he'd like to try adding other materials, including Teflon, next.  (Reuters UK)

-- A Portsmouth, England man accidentally set his house on fire when he attempted to kill a spider by burning it with a lighter. The man was trying to put the fire out with a garden house when firefighters arrived on the scene; they were able to extinguish it in two hours. Surprisingly there wasn't much damage to the house other than to the cladding, watch manager Steve Pearce said. "We obviously had a chat with the man but I don't think he'll be doing this again."  (Telegraph)

--Lindsay Barnett

Photo: A golden orb weaver rises above the part of its web called the stabilimentum.  Credit: Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times.

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