Spiders in the Orbiculariae spin orb webs that dissipate the mechanical energy of their flying prey, bringing the insects to rest and retaining them long enough for the spider to attack and subdue their meals. Small prey are easily stopped by webs but provide little energetic gain. While larger prey offer substantial nourishment, they are also challenging to capture and can damage the web if they escape. We therefore hypothesized that spider orb webs exhibit properties that improve their probability of stopping larger insects while minimizing damage when the mechanical energy of those prey exceeds the web's capacity. Large insects are typically both heavier and faster flying than smaller prey, but speed plays a disproportionate role in determining total kinetic energy, so we predicted that orb webs may dissipate energy more effectively under faster impacts, independent of kinetic energy per se. We used high-speed video to visualize the impact of wooden pellets fired into orb webs to simulate prey strikes and tested how capture probability varied as a function of pellet size and speed. Capture probability was virtually nil above speeds of ~3 m s−1. However, successful captures do not directly measure the maximum possible energy dissipation by orb webs because these events include lower-energy impacts that may not significantly challenge orb web performance. Therefore, we also compared the total kinetic energy removed from projectiles that escaped orb webs by breaking through the silk, asking whether more energy was removed at faster speeds. Over a range of speeds relevant to insect flight, the amount of energy absorbed by orb webs increases with the speed of prey (i.e. the rates at which webs are stretched). Orb webs therefore respond to faster – and hence higher kinetic energy – prey with better performance, suggesting adaptation to capture larger and faster flying insect prey. This speed-dependent toughness of a complex structure suggests the utility of the intrinsic toughness of spider silk and/or features of the macro-design of webs for high-velocity industrial or military applications, such as ballistic energy absorption.
A.T.S. and T.A.B. designed the study, analyzed the data and wrote the manuscript. A.T.S., S.P.K., K.A.L. and B.L. conducted the mechanical tests and performed the video analyses.
No competing interests declared.
This research was supported by National Science Foundation awards DBI-0521261, DEB-0516038 and IOS-0745379 to T.A.B. and a Hope Scholar Grant from Tabor College to A.T.S.
- © 2013. Published by The Company of Biologists Ltd