Researchers solve mystery of Charles Darwin's flying spiders

A spider using its spinnerets to balloon off into the air. Credit Michael Hutchinson

When the electric field was on, the spiders lifted their abdomens into the air and started tiptoeing by raising up on the very ends of their legs.

As it turns out, their secret is atmospheric electricity, reports the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom. The spiders pose in this manner only when they are all set to carry out ballooning.

To find out whether the atmosphere's electric fields influenced in any way ballooning, Morley and her colleague Daniel Robert carried out a series of experiments in the lab with Linyphiid spiders (Erigone).

Still, the researchers think that these electric fields are not the only factor responsible for ballooning-wind alone can play role in ballooning on the days when it is perfectly fine.

However, as soon as the researchers turned down the electric fields, the spiders stopped their activities and the hairs protruding from their feet gradually died down. Researchers introduce spiders in the lab containing electric fields identical to the naturally found electric field in our atmosphere, to prove their speculations.

'Many spiders balloon using multiple strands of silk that splay out in a fan-like shape, which suggests that there must be a repelling electrostatic force involved'.

However, it looks like electric spider flight fell to the back of scientists' minds for a long while.

However, the fact that ballooning has been observed when there is no wind to speak of, when skies are overcast and even in rainy conditions, begs the question - how do spiders take off with low levels of aerodynamic drag?

On a stormy day or in the presence of charged clouds, the APG can soar to 10 kilovolts per metre.

APGs and the electric fields surrounding all matter can be detected by insects.

The findings have applications beyond the world of arthropods.

Biologists remain fascinated by the aerial journeys of spiders. An improved understanding of the mechanisms behind dispersal is important for global ecology as they can lead to better descriptions of population dynamics, species distributions, and ecological resilience.

There is, however, more work to be done. Humans also can not fly in the air but we developed many other ways to get there and now it seems spiders are also coming close to get in the air.

Morley and Robert placed spiders in an enclosed plastic box, positioning them on strips of cardboard, and exposed them to voltages similar to what they might encounter in nature - the researchers saw the trichobothria respond, "It's like when you rub a balloon and hold it up to your hairs", Morley tells The Atlantic.

"Aware of the prevailing arguments, Charles Darwin mused over how thermals might provide the forces required for ballooning as he watched hundreds of spiders alight on the [H.M.S.] Beagle on a calm day out at sea", the researchers wrote in the paper.

"We don't yet know whether electric fields are required to allow spider ballooning", Morley said. Rather than shooting a web from their wrists (or in the case of Tom Holland's version, the suit itself), they use the atmospheric potential gradient (APG), which is an electric circuit between Earth and the ionosphere, in order to become airborne and drift away.

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