Ahoy there! Spiders really can sail across oceans

03 Jul 2015 01:30:00.000
PA 97/15

Strictly terrestrial – spiders were originally thought to be true land lubbers. But how then, do we explain their ability to disperse across continents and oceans?

For the first time experts in the SpiderLab at The University of Nottingham have described how money spiders use water tension, their legs as a ‘rudder’ and a good following wind to propel themselves across water.

The study, led by Dr Morito Hayashi, now based at the Natural History Museum in London was co-authored by and carried out in the laboratory of spider expert Dr Sara Goodacre at The University of Nottingham. The results have been published today, Friday 3 July 2015, in the open access journal BMC Evolutionary Biology.

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Spiders can ‘fly’

Spiders use their silk as a sail to fly through the air reaching as high as the jet stream to carry them across continents. Dr Goodacre’s lab has spent many years studying this ability to ‘fly’ – a technique known as ballooning. 

Now we know they can ‘sail’

She said: “Their ability to sail was a complete surprise. The fact that water is not a barrier to these spiders moving was also a very significant finding because it means that spiders can potentially travel over much longer distances than we once thought.”

Other things about spiders that are strange but true
The SpiderLab at Nottingham works on a range of evolutionary, population and conservation genetic studies using spiders as model systems to ask questions about the world around us. The lab’s current projects include studies of dispersal strategies (why do some individuals decide to take the risky option of ‘flying’ and why do others play ‘safe’ and stay?), the evolution of sociality in desert spiders (yes some spiders really do live happily in groups) and reasons why some tree spiders produce more daughters than sons (strange but true!) The lab also studies the evolution of spider silk, aiming to take inspiration from nature in order to make new, better, artificial silks.

Dr Goodacre, who cares for this collection of spiders from the tiny money spider and endangered raft spider to the fearsome tarantula, said: “Spiders are endlessly fascinating creatures. They get a lot of bad press but there are so many wonderful things about them and so many good things they do, which is why I study them.”  

“They are really important for the control of pests so we need to know more about where they go, what they eat and how they move. This new revelation on their ability to ‘sail’ across water just goes to show how much more we have to learn about them.”

She said: “This latest discovery shows that when they land in a place that isn’t ideal for them they have strategies to cope with that.”

Spiders can even live underwater

Having discovered how spiders can ‘sail’ Dr Goodacre and her SpiderLab team are now looking at spiders that have taken the plunge and live right underneath the water. This study is just one of a number of research projects aimed at providing the knowledge we need to understand how spiders have adapted to the world around us – potentially allowing us to develop new technologies and methods – such as artificial silk - that are inspired by nature.

The research - Sail or Sink: Novel behavioural adaptations on water in aerially dispersing species - is a collaborative work between Morito Hayashi (Natural History Museum, London, UK), Mohammed Bakkali (Universidad de Granada, Spain), Alexander Hyde (a British professional wildlife photographer who is a graduate of The University of Nottingham’s Biological Photography and Imaging MSc) and Sara Goodacre (The University of Nottingham).

The article is available at journal website: http://dx.doi.org/10.1186/s12862-015-0402-5 

Research article
Morito Hayashi, Mohammed Bakkali, Alexander Hyde & Sara L. Goodacre
Sail or Sink: Novel behavioural adaptations on water in aerially dispersing species
BMC Evolutionary Biology 2015
DOI 10.1186/s12862-015-0402-5

Please name the journal in any story you write. If you are writing for the web, please link to the article. All articles are available free of charge, according to BioMed Central's open access policy.

Images available on request. Please credit Alex Hyde.

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Notes to editors: The University of Nottingham has 43,000 students and is ‘the nearest Britain has to a truly global university, with campuses in China and Malaysia modelled on a headquarters that is among the most attractive in Britain’ (Times Good University Guide 2014). It is also one of the most popular universities in the UK among graduate employers and the winner of ‘Research Project of the Year’ at the THE Awards 2014. It is ranked in the world’s top one per cent of universities by the QS World University Rankings, and 8th in the UK by research power according to REF 2014.

The University of Nottingham in Malaysia (UNMC) is holding events throughout 2015 to celebrate 15 years as a pioneer of transnational education. Based in Semenyih, UNMC was established as the UK's first overseas campus in Malaysia and one of the first world-wide.

Impact: The Nottingham Campaign, its biggest-ever fundraising campaign, is delivering the University’s vision to change lives, tackle global issues and shape the future. More news…

Story credits

More information is available from Dr Sara Goodacre in the School of Life Sciences, The University of Nottingham on +44 (0)115 823 0334, sara.goodacre@nottingham.ac.uk; or Joel Winston, Media Officer at BioMed Central, on +44 (0)20 3192 2081, Joel.Winston@biomedcentral.com
Lindsay Brooke

Lindsay Brooke - Media Relations Manager

Email: lindsay.brooke@nottingham.ac.uk Phone: +44 (0)115 951 5751 Location: University Park

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