Deep in the Amazon jungle, the tiny slingshot spider soars through the air at lightning speed to capture its prey.
Launching from a spring-like web, it can accelerate 4,300 feet per second squared -over 100 times faster than a cheetah.
Velocities of 13 feet per second subject the world’s fastest spider to roughly 130 the acceleration of gravity (gs), or more than 13 times what fighter pilots can endure before passing out.
Scientists studying the mechanics of this daredevil arachnid believe unlocking how its web silk can store so much energy could lead to it being used as a power source for tiny robots and other devices.
Slingshot spiders, known by the scientific genus name Theridiosomatid, build three-dimensional conical webs with a tension line attached to the center.
Their acrobatics have been observed as far back as the 1930s, but scientists couldn’t really explain the mechanics until now.
In a report published this week in Current Biology, researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology detailed what’s believed to be the first kinematic examination of this spider’s amazing abilities.
Footage from high-speed cameras stationed in the Tambopata Research Center outside Puerto Maldonado, Peru, reveal the slingshot spider pulls the tension line with its front legs while holding onto the main web structure with its rear legs.
When the spider senses a fly or mosquito within range, it releases, launching the web – and itself – toward its prey, as seen in this video from Rainforest Expeditions.
If the arachnid connects, it quickly spools its meal in silk and if it misses, it simply pulls the tension line and resets the web.
‘We think this approach probably gives the spider the advantage of speed and surprise, and perhaps even the effect of stunning the prey,’ said co-author Symone Alexander, a postdoctoral researcher at Georgia Tech.
Slingshot spiders are only about 1/25 of an inch, far smaller than the insects on their menu, so they have to move fast if they want to eat.
‘If you compare this natural silk spring to carbon nanotubes or other human-made materials in terms of power density or energy density, it is orders of magnitude more powerful,’ said co-author Saad Bhamla, a professor at Georgia Tech’s School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering.
The slingshot is also rarity among arachnids in that it uses a tool – its web – to achieve such high speeds.
‘Unlike frogs, crickets, or grasshoppers, the slingshot spider is not relying on its muscles to jump really quickly,’ said Bhamla.
Alexander and Bhamla estimate that stretching the web requires at least 200 dynes, a tremendous amount of energy for such a tiny bug.
They believe the spider locks its muscles ‘like a latch’ so it doesn’t have to exert so much energy waiting for its next meal.
‘We wanted to understand these ultrafast movements because they can force our perspective to change from thinking about cheetahs and falcons as the only fast animals,’ Bhamla said.
‘There are many very small invertebrates that can achieve fast movement through unusual structures. We really wanted to understand how these spiders achieve that amazing acceleration.’