Posted by: Ross Gardner | October 18, 2020

A web of intrigue

Every morning when I wake up and go into the kitchen, grabbing the kettle and walking towards the sink to fill it with water, my eyes have for the last few weeks have been greeted with one of true and undisputed marvels of nature. A Garden Spider (Araneus diadematus) has taken up residence on the kitchen window, adorning it each day with the wonder that is its web.

The Garden Spider (Araneus diadematus).

The more I think about spiders the more astounding they seem, purveyors of such ingenuity in such a variety of expression and yet everything contained within a tiny, tiny brain. We cannot, of course, jump to too hasty assumptions about the intellectual capabilities of any of our fellow creatures – we cannot, after all, talk to spiders, mice, haddock or anything else to ascertain what they may or may not know. But surely with something like a spider it is a question of the physical number neurons able to be fitted into such a small space. This is likely to be something rather less than a million, compared to the 90 million or so in a hamster’s brain and the 100 billion in that of a human.

Yet while a spider’s brain is very, very small it has apparently been imbued through near-countless generations of arachnid evolution (fossil evidence suggests a lineage extending back well over 300 million years) with this extraordinary ability to manipulate a substance (i.e. silk – something that is absurdly strong yet pliably stretchy) in such a way as to incorporate a not inconsiderable degree of engineering efficiency. Across spider-kind this is deployed to astonishing and varied effect.

I have watched a Garden Spider constructing its web in my garden. A tight-rope is first extended across an appropriate expanse from which to hang the circular web, abseiling down to run across the ground or vegetation below, before climbing up the other side to fix the line. Then other supporting strands are set onto which the circular threads can be attached. The whole thing can look a haphazard shambles, until towards the completion of the structure tensing lines are put in place to transform the whole into that wondrous and copious retainer of autumn-morning dew.

This all demonstates to me a remarkable distillation of instinct and behaviour into an extraordinary pinpoint of existence. I find it all compellingly perplexing, yet reassuring to consider that as much as we already know about the natural world that there is so much more to be discovered. If only we could ensure that it is all still around in the future for us to realise the opportunities.

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