Insect scientists recently made a huge discovery when they stumbled upon a new spider species in Madagascar that constructs webs up to 82 feet in length.
Even more impressive than the enormity of the webs is their location. Researchers Matjaz Kuntner and Ingi Agnarsson of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History found the giant webs suspended across flowing bodies of water. It's the first time any spider has been shown to achieve such a feat, the team reported in a new study.
The enigmatic Darwin bark spider (Caerostris darwini) is part of a poorly known family of spiders with only 11 known species, all in the Old World. Researchers have only observed the female insect for most of these species.
Kuntner and Agnarsson were fortunate enough to capture both female and male Darwin spiders. “The females are just over 2 centimeters (.78 inches) in body size, plus legs, making them about the size of a large coin, or even a human thumb. The males are tiny, about 5 times smaller,” Kuntner told Discovery News.
The scientists are interested in determining how exactly the Darwin bark spiders build their webs across streams, rivers, and lakes. In Madagascar, they observed orb-shaped webs spanning up to 30 square feet, with anchor lines up to 82 feet in length.
Not surprisingly, these giant webs are very effective at catching prey. In an article recently published in the Journal of Arachnology, scientists reported finding 32 insects, mostly mayflies, in a single web.
The biologists deduced that the web’s effectiveness stems not only from its size, but also its remarkable strength — Darwin bark spiders produce the most durable silk of any species.
The superior quality of Darwin bark spider silk is attracting a lot of attention in the biomedical engineering world. “ silk is ideally suited to function in tendon repair because it is so strong, but also stretchy enough to maintain joint mobility. It is also potentially useful as a scaffold for growing tissue, such as helping repair bone and for bandages and sutures,” Todd Blackledge, a researcher from the University of Akron studying the Darwin's silk, explained.
The discovery of the Darwin bark spider is a perfect example of how many of nature’s big wonders often come in small packages.
Image: Kuntner and Agnarsson