Biomechanical Variation of Silk Links Spinning Plasticity to Spider Web Function

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Fall 2009


Spider silk is renowned for its high tensile strength, extensibility and toughness. However, the variability of these material properties has largely been ignored, especially at the intra-specific level. Yet, this variation could help us understand the function of spider webs. It may also point to the mechanisms used by spiders to control their silk production, which could be exploited to expand the potential range of applications for silk. In this study, we focus on variation of silk properties within different regions of cobwebs spun by the common house spider, Achaearanea tepidariorum. The cobweb is composed of supporting threads that function to maintain the web shape and hold spiders and prey, and of sticky gumfooted threads that adhere to insects during prey capture. Overall, structural properties, especially thread diameter, are more variable than intrinsic material properties, which may reflect past directional selection on certain silk performance. Supporting threads are thicker and able to bear higher loads, both before deforming permanently and before breaking, compared with sticky gumfooted threads. This may facilitate the function of supporting threads through sustained periods of time. In contrast, sticky gumfooted threads are more elastic, which may reduce the forces that prey apply to webs and allow them to contact multiple sticky capture threads. Therefore, our study suggests that spiders actively modify silk material properties during spinning in ways that enhance web function.

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