Spider Silk

Orb Spider Web
Contains 3 Types of Silk

Courtesy & Copyright 2011
Terry Greene, Photographer

Spider silk has long been of interest to scientists and engineers for its incredible strength. Silk can be, by weight, a stronger fiber than steel or Kevlar. But new research has discovered that the strength of the individual fibers does not explain the durability of a web, which can remain functional after sustaining extreme stress. The web’s overall design adds to silk’s durability to create a truly functional product.

Spiders utilize silk for many different reasons – transportation, lining burrows, protecting and securing egg cases, and of course for catching prey. Amazingly, an individual spider has the ability to manufacture several different types of silk, which are used for different purposes. In a typical orb-style web there are at least three kinds of silk at work. One is strong and dry, making up the ‘spokes’ of the web. These are the strands upon which the spider itself moves around, so as not to get stuck in its own trap. The strands which create the characteristic spiral pattern are actually made of two types of silk – one is a fine, stretchy fiber, and the other a sticky, glue-like substance. Together, these two silks make up the part of the web responsible for snaring prey.

Another important property of silk is that when stretched the fiber stiffens. As more pressure is applied, the properties of the silk change, allowing it to become stretchy and flexible. If still more pressure is added, the silk stiffens again, until finally it breaks. Originally, this stiff-stretchy-stiff response to stress was viewed as a weakness, but when analyzed as part of an interconnected web, that’s not the case. A team of scientists from MIT noted that webs could be subjected to a lot of force with only minimal damage. Whether the force was localized – for example while ensnaring a large insect – or more widespread over the entire surface – such as pressure from strong winds – the damage incurred by the web was minimal. Only the individual strands that endure the most pressure break, while others stiffen, flex, and remain intact.

Localized damage allows the spider to more often than not simply repair a web instead of abandoning it and starting over. Creating silk and weaving a web is a costly process for a spider – it takes up a lot of the arachnid’s energy. The ability to simply patch the broken parts is a more efficient strategy which requires less energy expenditure and fewer materials than weaving a new web.

Figuring out how to mimic this response to stress on a material could be infinitely useful in the human world. Imagine a skyscraper in an earthquake that fails in one small place where the forces are strongest – not in its entirety as is currently the case. That same earthquake-damaged building might also need only minimal repairs, saving time, money, and materials. Oh the lessons we could learn from one of nature’s smallest creatures…

Thank you to the Rocky Mountain Power Foundation for supporting the research and development of this Wild About Utah topic. For the Stokes Nature Center and Wild About Utah, this is Andrea Liberatore.

For the Stokes Nature Center and Wild About Utah, this is Andrea Liberatore.

Images: Courtesy & Copyright 2011 Terry Greene
Text:     Andrea Liberatore, Stokes Nature Center in Logan Canyon.

Additional Reading:

Chandler, David L. (2012) How Spider Webs Achieve Their Strength. MIT News Office. Available online at: http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2012/spider-web-strength-0202.html

National Science Foundation press release (2012) A Spider Web’s Strength Lies in More Than its Silk. Available online at: http://www.nsf.gov/news/news_summ.jsp?cntn_id=123041

Law, Steven (2012) Curious Things About Spider Webs. Available online at: http://www.ksl.com/?nid=968&sid=20488145