Since we were once curious about space, we Earthlings sent everything from slime to robots to Baby Yoda to the International Space Station (ISS). People have also sent spiders to the ISS – several times – despite the fact that this sounds like the plot of a B-movie. Now a new study says that spiders in space (!!!) learned how to build normal networks in microgravity without problems. But only if the astronauts leave the lights on.
The Independent reported on the study, which was recently published in the journal Natural science. It is based on research done on two pairs of male and female golden silk orb-weaving spiders, one of which was sent to the ISS in 2011. It was not easy to reach the pair there.
NASA actually sent two other spiders (not golden silk-orb weavers themselves, but similar species) in 2008. The space agency did this as a way to inspire high school students to think about science and space. But there was a logistical mishap, and the spiders only produced confused nets; those who would not give an understanding of how microgravity affected them.
University of Basel
However in 2011 the scientists were able to collect data comparing weaver networks in the ISS with those on the ground. And scientists have found that spiders did build their webs differently in space than on Earth. But, for the most part, the nets only differed from normal when scientists turned off the lights.
The scientists hypothesized that the weavers – who build their networks asymmetrically on Earth, with the centers of the networks displaced to their tops – will build them symmetrically on the ISS. The idea is that in microgravity there would be no mandatory function to create the displaced center. (The spiders hang out on Earth, looking down for prey. But in space, they don’t know which way to go down.)
The scientists say the weavers built symmetrical webs in space, but only while all the lights were off. When the lights came on, however, the spiders were able to use their vision instead of their sense of weight to guide their web construction. As a result, when astronauts left the lights of the spiders ’holding chambers on, the nets looked normal; the spiders even hung away from the centers of their webs as on Earth.
“We wouldn’t have guessed that light will play a role in orienting the spiders in space,” Dr. Samuel Zschokke said in a press release from the University of Basel. Zschokke, who analyzed the spider experiment and published the results with his colleagues, added, “Spiders have a backup system for orientation as this seems surprising, as they were never exposed to an environment without gravity during their evolution.”
And while that’s certainly a fascinating find, we can only think that quote would make a great initial crawl for … SPIDER SPACES IN SPACE!