8 Ways Spiders Are Creepily Clever


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.


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.


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. 


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

You Can Sip Coffee and Play Games While This Helmet Scans Your Brain

Brain scanning is a delicate operation, one that typically involves staying very still. Researchers use imaging techniques like magnetoencephalography (MEG) and functional magnetic resonance imaging to get an idea of how the brain functions and what neurons are being activated, but it's not an easy task. Current scanners are huge, requiring patients to sit unmoving inside them, lest their head movements mess up the data. There may soon be a better way—one that would allow patients to act normally while still getting reliable data.

Researchers from the University of Nottingham in the UK report in Nature that they've developed a prototype brain scanner that can be worn like a helmet, one that can generate reliable data even if the subject moves.

It uses lightweight quantum magnetic-field sensors held against the scalp by a 3D-printed helmet that's custom-made for the patient. For the study, one of the researchers volunteered to be the patient and was fitted with a white plastic helmet that looks kind of like a cross between a Roman Centurion helmet and a Jason Voorhees Halloween mask. She was positioned between two large panels equipped with electromagnetic coils that cancel out the Earth's magnetic field so that it doesn't interfere with the magnetic data picked up from the brain. As long as the patient stayed between the panels, she was free to move—nod her head, stretch, drink coffee, and bounce a ball with a paddle—all while the scanner picked up data about on par with what a traditional scanner (seen below) might gather.

A man sits inside an MEG scanner.

The more flexible scanning system is exciting for a number of reasons, including that it would allow squirmy children to have their brains scanned easily. Since patients can move around, it could measure brain function in more natural situations, while they're moving or socializing, and allow patients with neurodegenerative or developmental disorders to get MEG scans.

The current helmet is just a prototype, and the researchers want to eventually build a more generic design that doesn't require custom fitting.

Emery Smith
Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
The 'Alien' Mummy Is of Course Human—And Yet, Still Unusual
Emery Smith
Emery Smith

Ata has never been an alien, but she's always been an enigma. Discovered in 2003 in a leather pouch near an abandoned mining town in Chile's Atacama Desert, the tiny, 6-inch mummy's unusual features—including a narrow, sloped head, angled eyes, missing ribs, and oddly dense bones—had both the “It's aliens!” crowd and paleopathologists intrigued. Now, a team of researchers from Stanford University School of Medicine and UC-San Francisco has completed a deep genomic analysis that reveals why Ata looks as she does.

As they lay out in a paper published this week in Genome Research, the researchers found a host of genetic mutations that doomed the fetus—some of which have never been seen before.

Stanford professor of microbiology and immunology Garry Nolan first analyzed Ata back in 2012; the mummy had been purchased by a Spanish businessman and studied by a doctor named Steven Greer, who made her a star of his UFO/ET conspiracy movie Sirius. Nolan was also given a sample of her bone marrow; his DNA analysis confirmed she was, of course, human. But Nolan's study, published in the journal Science, also found something very odd: Though she was just 6 inches long when she died—a typical size for a midterm fetus—her bones appeared to be 6 to 8 years old. This did not lead Nolan to hypothesize an alien origin for Ata, but to infer that she may have had a rare bone disorder.

The current analysis confirmed that interpretation. The researchers found 40 mutations in several genes that govern bone development; these mutations have been linked to "diseases of small stature, rib anomalies, cranial malformations, premature joint fusion, and osteochondrodysplasia (also known as skeletal dysplasia)," they write. The latter is commonly known as dwarfism. Some of these mutations are linked to conditions including Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, which affects connective tissue, and Kabuki syndrome, which causes a range of physical deformities and cognitive issues. Other mutations known to cause disease had never before been associated with bone growth or developmental disorders until being discovered in Ata.

scientist measures the the 6-inch-long mummy called Ata, which is not an alien
Emery Smith

"Given the size of the specimen and the severity of the mutations … it seems likely the specimen was a pre-term birth," they write. "While we can only speculate as to the cause for multiple mutations in Ata's genome, the specimen was found in La Noria, one of the Atacama Desert's many abandoned nitrate mining towns, which suggests a possible role for prenatal nitrate exposure leading to DNA damage."

Though the researchers haven't identified the exact age of Ata's remains, they're estimated to be less than 500 years old (and potentially as young as 40 years old). Genomic analysis also confirms that Ata is very much not only an Earthling, but a local; her DNA is a nearest match to three individuals from the Chilote people of Chile.

In a press statement, study co-lead Atul Butte, director of the Institute for Computational Health Sciences at UC-San Francisco, stressed the potential applications of the study to genetic disorders. "For me, what really came of this study was the idea that we shouldn't stop investigating when we find one gene that might explain a symptom. It could be multiple things going wrong, and it's worth getting a full explanation, especially as we head closer and closer to gene therapy," Butte said. "We could presumably one day fix some of these disorders."