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Why Don't Spiders Get Stuck in Their Webs?

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When a bug flies into a spider web, the game is over. It’s almost instantly stuck, and a sitting duck for the web’s owner. When you or I walk into a web, we’re a little better off than the bug because we won’t be dinner, but the sticky strands of web are still a pain in the butt to pick off of clothes and skin.

The spider itself, which spends much more time in contact with the web than you or any bug, doesn’t seem to have any issues getting stuck as it moves around. What gives?

For a long time, people thought spiders didn’t get stuck because their legs were coated in an oil made inside their bodies. With their legs lubed up like this, there was nothing for the silk web strands to stick to. Early 20th century naturalists proposed this idea — that the spider “varnishes herself with a special sweat,” as one elegantly put it — after observing spiders in the wild. The hitch is that, for all the research on spiders scientists have done in the meantime, no one had bothered to test the idea until recently.

A study published last year by two biologists in Costa Rica, Daniel Briceño and William Eberhard, suggests that spiders stay unstuck thanks to a combination of behavior, anatomy and, yes, even an oily non-stick coating.

What a Web They Weave

The first thing that helps spiders from getting trapped is that not every part of every web is sticky. In many orb weaver spider webs, for example, only the spiral threads are made with sticky silk. The “spokes” that support the structure of the web and the center part of the web where the spider rests are made with “dry” silk.

Using the center area and the spokes, a spider can move all around the web, and even off of it, without any concern for getting stuck.

Neat Feet

The spiders that Briceño and Eberhard studied used the dry threads for moving around most of the time, but when prey landed on the webs and the spiders went to retrieve their dinner, they inevitably had to charge across a sticky section. Unlike their prey, though, the spiders didn’t just whack into the sticky threads willy-nilly. The scientists found that the spiders walk very carefully when on the sticky sections, holding their body clear of the web and making minimal contact with the threads with only the tips of their legs.

Under a microscope, Briceño and Eberhard saw that the sticky threads do indeed make contact with the spider and stick to the setae, or short bristly hairs, on their legs. As a spider pulls its leg of the web, though, the droplets of adhesives that sit on the thread slide toward the edge of the bristle, where they have contact with only the thin tip and easily pull away. All these bristles are also in irregular rows and break free from the sticky droplets one by one, not all at once, which keeps the adhesive force of multiple droplets from combining.

Smooth Like That

What is it about the setae that lets them shed the web’s adhesives so easily? When Briceño and Eberhard washed a detached spider leg and applied it to a sticky thread, the leg stuck and wasn’t as easily removed. They figured that the bristles must have either a chemical coating of anti-adhesive substances or a structural surface layer with anti-adhesive properties. After analyzing several compounds washed off the the spiders’ legs, they found several several oily substances — including n-dodecane, n-tridecane, and n-tetradecane — that could act as a non-stick coating.

The researchers couldn’t tell where the chemicals had come from, but scientists’ descriptions from the last century suggested that they were applied by the spider’s mouth. Sure enough, when Briceño and Eberhard washed a live spider’s legs, it passed each of the legs through its mouthparts, but they didn’t test whether or not any anti-adhesive material was being applied.

To see if the spiders were coating their own legs would require a pretty simple experiment, Eberhard told me via email, but the spider they were working with, Nephila clavipes, is only seasonally abundant. The study would have to wait until the population climbed again, so the source of the non-stick chemicals is still a mystery for now. In the meantime, he said, he’s looking into how spiders deal with a different type of silk, called cribellum silk, which can be sticky without being wet.

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Big Questions
How Do Aerial Skiers Perfect Their Jumps?
Cameron Spencer, Getty Images
Cameron Spencer, Getty Images

If you've ever watched an aerial skier in action, you know that some of the maneuvers these athletes pull off are downright jaw-dropping—and you've probably seen more than a few of these skiers land on their rear ends at some point. The jumps are incredible, but they're also so technical that one seemingly insignificant motion can drop a skier on his or her tail.

Given that the skiers can fly up to 60 feet in the air and come down on a 37-degree grade, it seems like just going out and trying a new trick would be a good way to break your neck. That's why you'll need one unexpected piece of equipment if you want to start training for aerials: a towel.

Instead of perfecting their flips and twists over the snow, aerial skiers try out their new maneuvers on ramps that launch them over huge swimming pools. The U.S. national team has facilities in Park City, Utah and Lake Placid, New York that include specially designed pools to help competitors perfect their next big moves. The pools have highly aerated patches of bubbles in their centers that decrease the surface tension to make the water a bit softer for the skiers' landings.

If you're an aspiring aerial skier, expect to get fairly wet. New skiers have to make a minimum of 200 successful jumps into water before they even get their first crack at the snow, and these jumps have to get a thumbs up from coaches in order for the skier to move on.

This sort of meticulous preparation doesn't end once you hit the big-time, either. American Ashley Caldwell, one of the most decorated athletes in the sport, is competing in her third Olympics in Pyeongchang, but failed to advance past the qualifiers on February 15, as she wasn't able to land either one of the two triple-flipping jumps she attempted. Still, it's this very sort of risk-taking that has brought her to the top of her game, and caused friction with more than one of her past coaches.

"Why win with less when you can win with more?" Caldwell said of her competition mentality. “I don’t want to go out there and show the world my easiest trick. I want to show the world my best trick, me putting everything on the line to be the best.”

You can check out some of Team USA's moves in the video below:

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
Is There Really Such Thing As 'Muscle Memory'?
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iStock

Is there really such a thing as 'muscle memory'? For example, in the sense of your fingers remembering where the keys of the keyboard are?

C Stuart Hardwick:

Yes and no. There is no literal memory in the muscles, but the thing people call “muscle memory” exists, though the name is a misnomer.

A better name might be “subconscious memory,” as the information is stored in the brain, but is most readily accessible—or only accessible—by non-conscious means.

What “non-conscious” refers to here is the brain’s enormous capacity to train up what might almost be called “subroutines,” that exist outside our conscious experience. I like the term for this that at least one researcher in the field uses: “zombie agency.”

Zombie agents are non-conscious, or sub-conscious (in the literal, not the Freudian sense) that can do essentially everything you can do except make value judgments. So, for example, you don’t consciously know how to control your muscles in order to walk —in all likelihood, you wouldn’t know where to begin—but your zombie agents do, and they’ll take you wherever you want to go, dodging curbs and puppies, and “waking you” when appropriate to decide which babies to stop and kiss.

Zombie agents can be rather startling things. When you suddenly become aware that you’ve driven halfway across town in the direction of the office instead of going to the shoe store Saturday morning, you have zombie agents to thank. You “wake” as if from slumber, and with the frightening realization that you’ve been flying down the highway at prodigious speed while your mind was on other things. You feel as if you’ve been asleep, and in a way you have—but a very funny kind of sleep in which it is only the uppermost layer of abstract reason that is disassociated from the rest of conscious experience. Your zombie agents have been driving to work, responding to traffic, adjusting the radio, noting the check engine light, all the things you think of as “you, driving the car,” except the big one: deciding where to go. That part was on automatic pilot (which is another good way to think of this).

This is at the advanced end of the spectrum. Typing your friend’s phone number using “muscle memory” is at the other, but it’s the same phenomenon.

We didn’t evolve to remember phone numbers, so we aren’t very good at it. In fact, we are so bad at it, we invent all sorts of mnemonic devices (memory aids) to help us [in] relating numbers to words or spacial memory, either of which are closer to the hunting and gathering we are evolved for. The illusion of “muscle memory” arises because we are supremely well adapted to manual manipulation and tool-making. We don’t need to invent a memory aid to help us remember what we do with our hands, we only have to practice.

So the conscious mind says “dial Tabby’s number,” and our fingers—or more correctly, the zombie agent which learned that task—do it. Similarly, after sufficient training, we can do the same thing with tasks like “play a major fifth,” "drive to work,” or “pull an Airbus A380 up for a go-around.”

It feels like muscle memory because the conscious mind—the part you experience as being you—is acting like a coach driver, steering the efforts of a team of zombie agents, all harnesses to collective action. But it isn’t muscle memory, it's just memory—though it may be stored (or at least some of it) in the deeper, motor cortex parts of the brain.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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