(ORDO NEWS) — Spiders rely heavily on the sense of touch to sense the world around them. Their body and legs are covered with tiny hairs and crevices that can distinguish different kinds of vibrations.
Prey that has fallen into the web makes a completely different vibrational noise than, for example, another spider that has come to whistle, or a swaying breeze. Each strand of the web emits its own tone.
A few years ago, scientists translated the three-dimensional structure of the web into music, working with artist Thomas Saraceno to create an interactive musical instrument called Spider’s Canvas.
The team later refined and expanded on this previous work by adding an interactive virtual reality component that allows people to enter and interact with the web.
This study, the team says, will not only help them better understand the web’s 3D architecture, but may even help us learn the vibrational language of spiders.
“The spider lives in an environment of vibrating strings,” engineer Markus Buhler at MIT explained in 2021. “They don’t see very well, so they perceive their world through vibrations that have different frequencies.”
When you think of a web, you most likely think of an orbital weaver’s web: flat, round, with radial spokes around which the spider builds a spiral web. However, most arachnoid networks are not like this, but are built in three dimensions, for example, leafy, glomerular, and funnel-shaped.
To study the structure of these types of webs, the team placed a tropical tent spider (Cyrtophora citricola) in a rectangular cage and waited for it to fill the space with a three-dimensional web. They then used a sheet laser to illuminate and create high-definition images of 2D cross-sections of the web.
A custom-designed algorithm then assembled a 3D web architecture from these 2D sections. To turn this into music, different sound frequencies were assigned to different strands. The notes thus generated were reproduced as patterns based on the structure of the canvas.
They also scanned the fabric as it was spun, translating each step of the process into music. This means that the notes change as the structure of the web changes, and the listener can hear the web being created.
Recording the step-by-step process means we can better understand how spiders build 3D webs without supporting structures, a skill that can be used for 3D printing, for example.
Spider’s Canvas lets viewers hear the music of the spider, researchers say, but virtual reality, in which users can walk in and play the filaments themselves, adds a whole new level of experience.
“The virtual reality environment is really intriguing because your ears pick up structural features that you can see but not immediately recognize,” Buhler explained.
“By hearing and seeing it at the same time, you can really begin to understand the environment that the spider lives in.”
This VR environment with realistic web physics allows researchers to understand what happens when they change parts of the web. Stretch the thread and its tone will change. Break one and see how it affects the other strands around it.
This too can help us understand the architecture of the web and why it works the way it does.
Perhaps most interestingly, this work allowed the team to develop an algorithm for detecting web vibration types, translating them as “prey caught,” “web under construction,” or “another spider arrived with loving intentions.”
This, the team says, is the basis for developing the ability to learn to speak the language of a spider – at least the tropical tent spider.
“Now we’re trying to generate synthetic signals to basically speak the language of the spider,” Buhler said.
“If we expose them to certain rhythms or vibrations, can we influence what they do and can we start communicating with them? Those are really exciting ideas.”
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