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This spider web ‘music’ hints at potential for cross-species communication

  • Written by  Annabel Bourne
  • Published in Wildlife
This spider web ‘music’ hints at potential for cross-species communication Alex Stemmer/Shutterstock
15 Apr
2021
Not your usual tune: translating spider's silk into sound could open up a whole world of web research

Scientists from the American Chemical Society have converted a spider’s web into audio. The process, which involved imaging and analysing a three-dimensional spider web, led to a curious piece of music which has been already played on a ‘harp-like instrument’ in several live performances.  The project's principal investigator, Markus Buehler, a professor of engineering at MIT, capitalised upon a personal interest in music to extend the research beyond the scientific world: 'Webs could be a new source for musical inspiration that is very different from the usual human experience.'

To create the music, the researchers first produced a 3D digital model of the spider's web by taking 2D cross-section images and using computer algorithms. They then converted the non-audible data into something audible – a process known as sonification.  This involved assigning distinct notes to each of the silk strands of the spider’s web based on their length.

259881 webCross-sectional images (shown in different colors) of a spider web were combined into this 3D image and translated into music [Isabelle Su and Markus Buehler]

The innovative approach allowed the researchers to come up with ‘novel interpretations’ of the spider’s web, offering a new perspective on how we can understand the natural world.  The researchers also set up a virtual reality environment, combining the visual and audio representations of the web: ‘By hearing it [the web] and seeing it at the same time, you can really start to understand the environment the spider lives in,’ says Beuhler. 

And it isn't all about music. The researchers are keen to show that an in-depth understanding of natural constructions such as spider webs, has great potential for aiding our own technological constructions. Just one example is the method dubbed 'spider-mimicking', in which complex micro-structures are 3D printed, using the spider web as inspiration.

For more examples of the ways in which the plant and animal kingdoms can inspire human construction, read our feature: Learning from nature: how scientists use biomimetics to build a better world

Beuhler expressed his hopes that the new research into sonification will lead to further work in cross-species communication: 'If we expose them [the spiders] to certain patterns of rhythms or vibrations, can we affect what they do, and can we begin to communicate with them? Those are really exciting ideas.' Future research in this area could potentially explore ways of communicating with spiders ‘in their own language’, or influence their behaviour with the help of machine algorithms. Spiders are the ‘second most vibration-sensitive organisms’ after the cockroach, according to a 2011 study conducted at the University of Vienna. They have thousands of strain sensors predominantly concentrated on the legs, which enable them to detect vibrations in their webs (for example when prey is caught) and then act upon the specific frequencies.

previous study in 2018 by researchers including Buehler, found that most research on spider webs to date has focused on the orb web (a specific form of web which is 2D and circular in shape), whilst the majority of webs created by spiders are not orb webs. This analysis of a 3D web structure pushes the research a step further.

Spider webs are actually very diverse; web types include funnel webs, sheet webs, tangle webs, lace webs, radial webs and purse webs.  They also have a number of desirable properties. As the paper’s abstract states, spider webs have a unique ‘strength, toughness, elasticity and robustness’ making them a particularly appealing natural formation to study.

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