Wonders beneath your feet

This is an absolutely wonderful article about a new discovery: Tarantulas not only posses spinnerets, but have silk glands on their feet. Wired News has a picture-laden article about the whole silky saga. This enables the heavy arachnids to climb sheer surfaces without slipping and falling to their deaths. (tarantulas, even tree-living species, have delicate exoskeletons, and even a 5-foot fall on a floor could be fatal to many)

A few simple experiments in the Journal of Experimental Biology proved that indeed tarantulas were able to climb sheer glass surfaces with tiny silk safety-lines in each of their tarsi.  What’s even cooler is that the pores that produced the silk were already known and documented:

SEM photograph of setae on tarantula foot, showing silk-producing pore

Both setae (flat strands) and spigot structures (thin, bright strands) are visible in this shot, which is about 0.01 of a millimeter wide. Before Rind’s team took these images, the spigots were assumed to be heat-sensitive hairs. “Arachnologists spotted [the spigots] 20 or 30 years ago but, as far as I know, nobody described their function,” Rind said. “It’s a little surprising with a creature as well-studied as a tarantula.”

I really dig this story because it shows that there are marvelous things to learn even about well-known and documented organisms, and that simple curiosity and science can lead to even more wonder about the world. (It also shows how ruthless peer-review can bring about better experiments.)

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