Electricity potential answer to the mystery of ‘flying’ spiders

Tiptoeing on dandelion head

The atmosphere's static electricity - the same one that bristles hair after a balloon is rubbed on a wool sweater - is another possible explanation, which researchers at Britain's Bristol University made a decision to put to the test.

Air currents can still play a role in the flight of spiders, but Morley and her team proved the arachnids could fly exclusively through the light of electric fields. Thunderstorms tap the energy of the Earth's atmospheric potential gradient (APG), the field of electricity that lies between the surface and the solar-irradiated ionosphere, to sustain an electrical charge stable enough to provide the needed lift, evidently cuing the spiders when it's time to deploy their silk-spun balloons.

The spider stops to take off with the help of wind and electricity. According to Morley, this behavior is only seen before ballooning.

The obvious explanation might be that their web catches the breeze and carries them away, but this notion doesn't quite fly.

"Charles Darwin mused over how thermals might provide the forces required for ballooning as he watched hundreds of spiders alight on the Beagle on a calm day out at sea", explained the researchers in the paper. In nature, it makes sense for spiders to sense both the electrostatic field around them as well as wind conditions.

The new study doesn't mean that wind plays no role in spiders' long-distance air travel, but it does show that they can balloon without necessarily needing wind. Daniel Robert wrote about their study and findings in the journal Current Biology.

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Some observers suggested electrostatic fields might be the reason the multiple draglines some spiders use to float don't get tangled with each other.

APGs and the electric fields surrounding all matter can be detected by insects. A honeybee uses e-fields to communicate with its hive.

We have long known that spider silk is an effective insulator of electricity. The effect would be even more powerful the higher up into the air the spiders are. "We know that they have very sensitive hairs that are displaced by air movements or even sound". All they had to do was switch the e-field on and off. And after the spiders became airborne, their altitude can be directed by turning the electric field on and off.

If you have a grounded sharp object, such as a tree, rising into the APG, the electrical field, or "e-field", around the tree can get quite charged. Because scientists have discovered more about a process that allows some spiders to "fly" without the aid of wings.

An improved understanding of the mechanisms behind dispersal are important for global ecology as they can lead to better descriptions of population dynamics, species distributions and ecological resilience.

"As a sensory biologist, I was keen to understand what sensory system they might use to detect electric fields", said Morley. "We also hope to carry out further investigations into the physical properties of ballooning silk and carry out ballooning studies in the field", said Morley.

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