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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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Words
Why Is 'Colonel' Spelled That Way?
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English spelling is bizarre. We know that. From the moment we learn about silent “e” in school, our innocent expectations that sound and spelling should neatly match up begin to fade away, and soon we accept that “eight” rhymes with “ate,” “of” rhymes with “love,” and “to” sounds like “too” sounds like “two.” If we do sometimes briefly pause to wonder at these eccentricities, we quickly resign ourselves to the fact that there must be reasons—stuff about history and etymology and sound changing over time. Whatever. English. LOL. Right? It is what it is.

But sometimes English takes it a step too far, does something so brazen and shameless we can’t just let it slide. That’s when we have to throw our shoulders back, put our hands on our hips and ask, point blank, what is the deal with the word “colonel”?

“Colonel” is pronounced just like “kernel.” How did this happen? From borrowing the same word from two different places. In the 1500s, English borrowed a bunch of military vocabulary from French, words like cavalerie, infanterie, citadelle, canon, and also, coronel. The French had borrowed them from the Italians, then the reigning experts in the art of war, but in doing so, had changed colonello to coronel.

Why did they do that? A common process called dissimilation—when two instances of the same sound occur close to each other in a word, people tend to change one of the instances to something else. Here, the first “l” was changed to “r.” The opposite process happened with the Latin word peregrinus (pilgrim), when the first “r” was changed to an “l” (now it’s peregrino in Spanish and Pellegrino in Italian. English inherited the “l” version in pilgrim.)

After the dissimilated French coronel made its way into English, late 16th century scholars started producing English translations of Italian military treatises. Under the influence of the originals, people started spelling it “colonel.” By the middle of the 17th century, the spelling had standardized to the “l” version, but the “r” pronunciation was still popular (it later lost a syllable, turning kor-o-nel to ker-nel). Both pronunciations were in play for a while, and adding to the confusion was the mistaken idea that “coronel” was etymologically related to “crown”—a colonel was sometimes translated as “crowner” in English. In fact, the root is colonna, Italian for column.

Meanwhile, French switched back to “colonel,” in both spelling and pronunciation. English throws its shoulders back, puts its hands on its hips and asks, how boring is that?

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Big Questions
Why Do Cats Love Scratching Furniture?
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Allergy suffering aside, cat ownership has proven health benefits. A feline friend can aid in the grieving process, reduce anxiety, and offer companionship.

The con in the cat column? They have no reservations about turning your furniture into shredded pleather. No matter how expensive your living room set, these furry troublemakers will treat it with the respect accorded to a college futon. Do cats do this out of some kind of spite? Are they conspiring with Raymour & Flanigan to get you to keep updating home decor?

Neither. According to cat behaviorists, cats gravitate toward scratching furniture mostly because that love seat is in a really conspicuous area [PDF]. As a result, cats want to send a message to any other animal that may happen by: namely, that this plush seating belongs to the cat who marked it. Scratching provides both visual evidence (claw marks) as well as a scent marker. Cat paws have scent glands that can leave smells that are detectable to other cats and animals.

But it’s not just territorial: Cats also scratch to remove sloughed-off nail tips, allowing fresh nail growth to occur. And they can work out their knotted back muscles—cramped from sleeping 16 hours a day, no doubt—by kneading the soft foam of a sectional.

If you want to dissuade your cat from such behavior, purchasing a scratching post is a good start. Make sure it’s non-carpeted—their nails can get caught on the fibers—and tall enough to allow for a good stretch. Most importantly, put it near furniture so cats can mark their hangout in high-traffic areas. A good post might be a little more expensive, but will likely result in fewer trips to Ethan Allen.

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