Cloudy with a chance of spiders?

Tiptoeing on dandelion head

In addition, as the electricity was turned off, all the spiders quickly fell to the ground.

In the new study, Dr. Morley and her colleague, Professor Daniel Robert from the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Bristol, exposed Linyphiid spiders to lab-controlled electric fields that were quantitatively equivalent to those found in the atmosphere.

They found that spiders respond to the APG-like electric fields by ballooning.

"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. Morley's study is the first to prove the theory in the laboratory.

The phenomenon of spiders seemingly floating for long distances isn't new. Morley told VOA that spiders only tiptoe right before they release silk draglines to fly away, in a process called ballooning.

With the electric field switched on, researchers observed that the spider pointed its abdomen in the air, released a long strand of silk, and zipped into the air. 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.

They noticed that switching the electric field on and off caused the spider to move upwards (on) or downwards (off), proving that spiders can become airborne in the absence of wind when subjected to electric fields.

They also note, "Several mechanistic questions now emerge, pertaining to the dielectric characteristics of ballooning silk and whether altitude control and navigation take place". "If you hold the balloon [near your head], your hair stands on end". But we're still holding our breath for the discovery that'll show us how to shoot silk from our wrists so we can catch some air of our own. "We know that they have very sensitive hairs that are displaced by air movements or even sound".

"As a sensory biologist, I was keen to understand what sensory system they might use to detect electric fields", said Morley.

However, where do these forces come from, and why are they so abundant to allow spiders to take regular ballooning trips?

This was exactly what she observed. Spiders probably use both when taking off and navigating the skies.

Mathematician Longhua Zhao from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland has made computer models of how spiders balloon. This, in turn, eliminated air currents and other electric fields beside the experimental e-field.

But Morley's work suggests electricity plays an important role after all. "However, we don't know at this point which is the dominant factor". 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.

Michael Hutchinson A spider ballooning on a flower.

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