8 Ways Spiders Are Creepily Clever

iStock
iStock

You may already know that spiders can spin intricate webs and poison their prey. But that doesn't even begin to cover the all the sneaky abilities spiders have adapted to become the most fearsome organisms on eight legs. Here are some of the tricks spiders use to catch their meals while avoiding becoming dinner themselves.

1. THEY HAVE SUPER-POWERED SENSES.

Spidey-senses weren't just invented for comic books. Jumping spiders in real life have sharp eyesight and excellent hearing to make up for their inability to spin webs. Scientists long assumed that spiders couldn't hear because they don't have ears. But as researchers reported in a 2016 study, jumping spiders can "hear" perfectly fine—they just use the super sensitive hairs on their legs to do so. These same spiders can also see surprisingly well, as astronomer Jamie Lomax demonstrated when she used laser pointers to lure them away from her desk like they were tiny cats.

2. THEY MIMIC ANTS.

The fact that the jumping spider species Myrmarachne formicaria tricks predators into thinking it's an ant by mimicking its appearance isn't a new discovery. But exactly how it achieves this was unclear until recently. According to a Harvard study published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, the spider pulls off this deceptive stunt while using all eight legs to walk. During its performance, it takes 100-millisecond pauses to lift its front two limbs to its head so they resemble antennae. The switch is so fast that to a human looking from above, the spider appears to simply be walking with its back six legs while lifting its front legs off the ground. Scientists had to use high-speed cameras to prove this wasn't the case. 

3. THEY TUNE THEIR WEBS.

Despite lacking ears, spiders have some impressive musical talents. They treat the strands of their webs like the strings of a guitar, tuning them just right so they can detect certain vibrations. For their study published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface, researchers from the University of Oxford and Charles III University of Madrid observed garden cross spiders maintaining their webs. They learned that adjusting the tension and stiffness of the silk allows the spiders to sense frequencies they can recognize. One signal might mean that prey is near, while another could be connected to structural issues with the web.

4. THEY PRETEND TO BE BIRD POOP.

Spider disguised as bird poop.

Min-Hui Liu et. al, Scientific Reports // CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

Camouflage is not unique among arachnids, but orb weaver spiders may win the prize for the most memorable disguise. In its juvenile stage of life, the spider will surround itself with a thick, white material in the center of its web. Its whitish abdomen blends into the "decoration," making the spider appear as if it's buried in a splatter of bird droppings. The unappetizing look is usually enough to convince predators to look elsewhere for a meal that's easier to stomach.

5. THEY CAST NETS.

Spider with web between it's legs.

Chen-Pan Liao, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Bigger isn't always better when it comes to webs. Take the net-casting spider: The silken trap it uses to snare food is small enough to fit between its limbs. The spider poops out a pale "target" onto the forest floor and then hangs above it waiting, sometimes for hours, for an insect to come along and trigger a "trip wire" connected to the ground. Once that moment comes, it wastes no time lunging at its prey and enveloping it in its web. It then bites and paralyzes its prey before commencing the feast.

6. THEY CAN FIRE THEIR HAIRS LIKE TINY BARBED SPEARS.

If all else fails, at least tarantulas have their spear-like hairs to fall back on. A tarantula deploys its "urticating hairs" when it feels threatened. By grinding its back legs against its abdomen, it's able to shoot the barbed hairs at its target like a shower of tiny throwing stars. You don't have to be a predator to trigger this defense mechanism, as many tarantula pet owners have found out the hard way.

7. THEY SOMERSAULT.

When most spiders need to escape a dangerous situation, they rely on their eight limbs to scurry them to safety. The golden wheel spider curls up its body and rolls down hills to make an even speedier getaway. This type of spider is native to the Namib Desert in southern Africa, where steep, sandy dunes are abundant. When it's tucked into a ball, the spider can reach tumbling speeds of 3.2 feet per second.

8. THEY CREATE BUBBLE SUBMARINES AND SCUBA SUITS.

Even without gills, spiders have adapted some pretty clever ways of surviving underwater for long amounts of time. The diving bell spider weaves web balloons that extract dissolved oxygen from the water around it while filtering out carbon dioxide. Using this improvised scuba suit, the spider can last a whole day before it needs to come up for air. Then there are wolf spiders, which use a much more dramatic survival tactic. A 2009 study found that marsh-dwelling varieties of wolf spiders appear to drown after being submerged for extended periods. But once they're placed on dry land, they twitch back to life. Slipping into a coma underwater is how they're able to evade death.

Do Dogs Understand What You’re Telling Them? Scientists Are Scanning Their Brains to Find Out

iStock/kozorog
iStock/kozorog

We all know that dogs can learn to respond to human words, but it’s not always clear what’s happening in a dog’s brain when they hear and recognize words like “cookie” and “fetch.” Do they have to rely on other clues, like gestures, to figure out what we mean by that word? Do they picture a dog biscuit when you say “cookie,” or just the sensation of eating? In a new study, scientists from Emory University and the New College of Florida tried to get to the bottom of this question by training dogs to associate certain objects with words like “blue” and “duck,” then using fMRI brain scanners to see what was happening in the dogs’ heads when they heard that word.

The study, published in Frontiers in Neuroscience, examined the brains of 12 different dogs of various breeds (you can see them below) that had been trained to associate two different objects with random words like “duck,” “blue,” and “beach ball.” Those two objects, which were different for each dog, were brought by the dogs’ owners from home or chosen from a selection of dog toys the researchers compiled. One object had to be soft, like a stuffed animal, and the other one had to be something hard, like a rubber toy or squeaky toy, to make sure the dogs could clearly distinguish between the two. The dogs were trained for several months to associate these objects with their specific assigned words and to fetch them on command.

Then, they went into the fMRI machine, where they had been trained to sit quietly during scanning. The researchers had the dogs lie in the machine while their owners stood in front of them, saying the designated name for the toys and showing them the objects. To see how the dogs responded to unknown words, they also held up new objects, like a hat, and referred to them by gibberish words.

Dogs in a science lab with toys
Prichard et al., Frontiers in Neuroscience (2018]

The results suggest that dogs can, in fact, discriminate between words they know and novel words. While not all the dogs showed the same neural response, they showed activation in different regions of their brains when hearing the familiar word versus the novel one.

Some of the dogs showed evidence of a greater neural response in the parietotemporal cortex, an area of the dog brain believed to be similar to the human angular gyrus, the region of the brain that allows us to process the words we hear and read. Others showed more neural activity in other regions of the brain. These differences might be due to the fact that the study used dogs of different sizes and breeds, which could mean differences in their abilities.

The dogs did show a surprising trend in their brains’ response to new words. “We expected to see that dogs neurally discriminate between words that they know and words that they don’t,” lead author Ashley Prichard of Emory University said in a press release. “What's surprising is that the result is opposite to that of research on humans—people typically show greater neural activation for known words than novel words." This could be because the dogs were trying extra hard to understand what their owners were saying.

The results don’t prove that talking to your dog is the best way to get its attention, though—it just means that they may really know what's coming when you say, "Want a cookie?"

Scientists Find Fossil of 150-Million-Year-Old Flesh-Eating Fish—Plus a Few of Its Prey

M. Ebert and T. Nohl
M. Ebert and T. Nohl

A fossil of an unusual piranha-like fish from the Late Jurassic period has been unearthed by scientists in southern Germany, Australian news outlet the ABC reports. Even more remarkable than the fossil’s age—150 million years old—is the fact that the limestone deposit also contains some of the fish’s victims.

Fish with chunks missing from their fins were found near the predator fish, which has been named Piranhamesodon pinnatomus. Aside from the predator’s razor-sharp teeth, though, it doesn’t look like your usual flesh-eating fish. It belonged to an extinct order of bony fish that lived at the time of the dinosaurs, and until now, scientists didn’t realize there was a species of bony fish that tore into its prey in such a way. This makes it the first flesh-eating bony fish on record, long predating the piranha. 

“Fish as we know them, bony fishes, just did not bite flesh of other fishes at that time,” Dr. Martina Kölbl-Ebert, the paleontologist who found the fish with her husband, Martin Ebert, said in a statement. “Sharks have been able to bite out chunks of flesh, but throughout history bony fishes have either fed on invertebrates or largely swallowed their prey whole. Biting chunks of flesh or fins was something that came much later."

Kölbl-Ebert, the director of the Jura Museum in Eichstätt, Germany, says she was stunned to see the bony fish’s sharp teeth, comparing it to “finding a sheep with a snarl like a wolf.” This cunning disguise made the fish a fearful predator, and scientists believe the fish may have “exploited aggressive mimicry” to ambush unsuspecting fish.

The fossil was discovered in 2016 in southern Germany, but the find has only recently been described in the journal Current Biology. It was found at a quarry where other fossils, like those of the Archaeopteryx dinosaur, have been unearthed in the past.

[h/t the ABC]

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