They’re creepy and spooky, mysterious and kooky. They’re also vicious killers. But they’re absolutely mind-bogglingly amazing. Meet the incredible spider and its superpowers.
Imagine being able to leap over the Statute of Liberty or run faster than a Japanese bullet train or have the strength to hold a double-decker bus while walking upside down on the ceiling. Humans can’t do that, of course, but spiders can. They can leap 50 times their body length, run up to 70 body lengths per second (10 times faster than the fastest human) and carry up to 170 times their body weight walking across a ceiling.
And that’s not all. They can also survive underwater for more than 24 hours, fly in the air thousands of miles, create webs of rare engineering genius and devise the most sinister schemes to catch prey.
The world of spiders is weird, wacky and a wonder of the Creator with few rivals.
Silk Stronger Than Steel
The most famous spider superpower is their ability to produce silk. Inside each eight-legged creature is a miraculous factory that makes the strongest fiber pound-for-pound known to science. They shoot this silk fiber out of tiny tubes to create traps, houses, parachutes, cocoons and more.
Spider silk begins as a complex liquid, oozing through internal pathways, secreted through spinnerets near the back end of the insect that hardens immediately as it is being laid down. One scientist wanted to see just how much silk he could pull out of a spider, so he started pulling and pulling… and he kept pulling and pulling… 10 feet… 20 feet… 30 feet… 100 feet… 200 feet… 300 feet… 400 feet! At 450, he got tired and stopped. (The spider, for its part, wasn’t tired. It was still going strong after 450 feet!)
There are over 40,000 species of spiders and each can produce up to several different kinds of silk. There’s egg sac silk, which they use to wrap their eggs in. There’s swathing silk, the stuff they use to wrap their prey in. There’s drag line silk, the strongest of all, which the spiders hang on. There’s attaching silk — that’s what they use to hang their webs onto any object. They can produce sticky silk as well as non-sticky silk. All varieties are incredibly thin, finer than a human hair – and yet stronger than steel. Many webs weigh less than a milligram, yet can support 4,000 times their weight. Some spider silk is stronger than the strongest man-made substance, Kevlar, the stuff we make bullet-proof vests from.
Here’s one more amazing fact: if we could get a spider to spin silk as thick as a pen, it would stop a 747 airliner in flight.
The 80-Foot Web
It’s not only the strength of the silk and its ability to both stretch and tighten that allows a spider web to resist damage, but also the intricate design of the web itself. Included in their ingenious design, webs are engineered in a way that keeps damage localized, allowing a spider to more easily repair a web rather than having to rebuild it entirely after every impact from a bug, twig, or strong wind.
Spider webs come in all shapes and sizes. Different spiders favor funnels, sheets, tubes or a tangle of lines. Asked to draw the classic spider web, most of us would sketch an orb web. This is the name given to webs with a spiraling, circular pattern of interconnecting threads. Within an orb web, there are different types of silk: the strong scaffolding lines provide structure and the sticky capture threads trap prey. Orb webs are the most familiar to us, because orb weavers are the third largest spider family on the planet.
Perhaps the most amazing web is that spun by the Darwin’s bark spider. This spider sprays strands of silk in one long continuous flow. The threads fan out like a sail and drift on air currents blowing across a river. Every few seconds, the spider scrimps the strands together to stop them from spreading too widely. The breeze will do the rest, blowing the threads into a single line 80 feet to the other side of a river, forming a bridge. Then she reinforces her bridge to hang her web from it.
If another Darwin bark spider at the other end tries to take advantage of her hard work, she cuts the line. It’s an inconvenience, but no more than that. With hooks on the tips of each leg, she gathers in the thread. It won’t go to waste. She’ll eat it later. When it’s all reeled in, she sprays again. Out springs another 80-foot long bridging line.
How a spider no bigger than a thumbnail can produce so much silk so quickly has baffled scientists. And it’s no ordinary silk. Darwin’s bark spider has the toughest silk ever observed — more than twice as tough as any previously described silk, and more than 10 times stronger than Kevlar.
And it needs to be tough to span the wide river. Besides 80 feet long, they can get up to six feet wide and up to 30 square feet.
A few hours from the first spray of bridging line, the job is done. At that point, her strategy is simple: sit and wait. By positioning their webs directly above rivers, Darwin’s bark spiders can capture dozens of unsuspecting dragonflies, mayflies and other insects flying over the water.
Another amazing spider superpower is the ability to survive underwater for days. Diving bell spiders can be found in slow-moving streams ponds and swamps from Europe through Central Asia. They spend almost all of their lives below the surface. Even though they can’t actually breathe water, they spin a special web between underwater plants with three different types of silk fibers and then drag air from the surface to fill the space underneath it.
Diving bells do all sorts of things in their web bubbles. They eat, sleep and reproduce there. When they’re hungry, they can actually swim around for a little bit in search of prey thanks to the fine water repellent hairs on their bodies. These hairs hold on to a little bit of air, which acts like a scuba tank.
The length of time a spider can survive from this bubble depends on its size and type of hairs. The wolf spider can survive 36 hours of submersion before drying off and walking away unharmed. When scientists first observed this, they thought that the spiders had died and come back to life. As they studied the “dead” spiders drying in a laboratory, the creatures began to twitch. First one small movement, then another — and before long, marsh spiders were skittering about as though nothing had happened.
Spiders aren’t only found underwater, but in the sky. They may not have wings to fly in the conventional sense, but they have been found thousands of feet high and can travel for hundreds of miles.
Autumn in England is the time for spiderlings to leave their mothers. The youngsters climb up the threads they’ve spun to reach the topmost twigs of the bushes. They tip their abdomens into the air and the gentle breeze catches the filaments as they issue from the spinnerets.
Some filaments drift down and become entangled in the bushes. But when conditions are right, the threads rise vertically upwards. And away the spiderlings go. Like a shimmering carpet of gossamer, strands of the finest silk can carry a million baby spiders.
On a calm day, they may only travel a few yards, but if there’s a breeze, they can be swept up high into the sky. Spiderlings have been recorded thousands of feet up and can travel for hundreds of miles.
With brains the size of a sesame seed, spiders may seem like mental lightweights, but many species plan intricate ways of trapping their prey.
California turret spider, as the name suggests, builds its lair to look like the turret of a castle. It looks like a little tower rising above the forest floor. They line the inside with pearly white silk and coat the outside with mud, moss or leaves. The turret leads down to the spider’s burrow, which can descend six inches underground.
The spider spends its days down there. As the last rays of sun die out, it rises to wait motionless…until some unsuspecting creature happens by. Every step the unsuspecting bug takes creates tiny tremors, betraying its location. Turret spiders actually have pretty poor vision. Instead, they rely on feel, bursting out in whichever direction the vibrations seem to come from. So sometimes they miss.
They belong to group of spiders called mygalomorphs, along with their more famous cousins: tarantulas and trap-door spiders. That means that when they don’t miss, they strike with oversized fangs that swing down like a pair of pickaxes.
Unlike spiders that build intricate aerial webs, a female turret spider might live for 16 years and never stray from her turret. She only ventures into the world for a split second, just long enough to drag her next victim down to its demise.
Some spiders, incredibly, have been observed taking dead bugs and webs and constructing life-size models of themselves to distract predatory wasps. To defend themselves, orb spiders build body doubles out of bug corpses and silk. To us, it looks like bundles of junk have cluttered up their webs, but to predators, those lumps of moldering insect pieces look just like lunch. That’s because orb spiders, like all spiders, have bodies that reflect ultraviolet rays. By wrapping up bundles of trash with UV webbing, orb spiders are creating decoys that are not only the same size, but also the same color. The dummy spiders are such a good distraction that wasps will attack the wrong target 60% of the time.
“I don’t know of any animal that actively builds a decoy of itself,” said one scientist studying the spiders.
Possibly even more unusual, the common garden spider has been known to trick insects into thinking its web is a flower. It turns out that flowers give bees and other insects explicit instructions on where to find nectar. Striations in their petals that botanists describe as a “bull’s-eye pattern” guide pollinators exactly where they need to go. It’s like landing lights for bugs.
The garden spider produces a special type of non-adhesive silk and weaves it into its web. The zigzag patterns act like a neon beacon for the innocent bugs, guiding them to their deaths. How effective are the spiders’ deadly decorations? Research shows that they catch 50% more insects with their evil artwork than without.
Silk as a Lasso
The bolas spider is a night hunter that uses webbing to catch its prey, like most spiders, but with a unique twist: It produces a cord of silk with a sticky glob of glue weighing down one end. This spider makes a lasso, or bolas, that it twirls around with one of its spindly legs to fling at passing moths. She whips the bolas literally like a lasso and snatches the flying moth.
To lure the moths in, the bolas spider can produce the pheromones, a chemical perfume, that the moth finds irresistible. Even more, she can change it to attract the particular species of moth that happens to be around.
And to be even more deceptive, some bolas spiders have eye spots on their backs to mimic the face of the moths they hunt. Yet others contort their bodies and, together with their unique coloring, appear to predators as droppings. (Most animals find droppings to be quite unappetizing.)
The net casting spider is also known as the gladiator spider and the ogre-face spider. They have two huge forward-facing eyes that can reach 1.4 millimeters in diameter. While that might not sound big, that’s the largest eye relative to body size found in spiders – about a tenth of the length of their entire body. It would be like a human having eyes bigger than cantaloupes. These eyes give the spiders a wide but shallow view of the world. They also contain lots of light receptor cells, allowing them to pick up around 2,000 times more light than the eyes of day dwelling spiders or humans. But seeing that much light during the day is problematic, so they destroy parts of their retinas every day and rebuild them again just before nightfall.
These special eyes are what allow net-casting spiders to, well, cast nets. Though they technically build webs, they don’t use them like other web builders do. Instead of making a big mesh net for a bug to run into, they spin a small web between their legs. Then, in the dark of night, they drop down on their prey from above and envelop them with their sticky net.
Firing a Poison Web
Spiders can bring the battle to their enemies from a distance. In fact, spiders have multiple types of missile attacks. The green lynx spider, for example, is known to spit venom like a spitting cobra. This half-inch-long spider can hurl venom about 5 inches, or roughly 10 times its body length. Though the poison isn’t fatal to humans, there’s at least one report of a soldier taking a squirt to the eye and being blinded for two days.
The spitting spider does things differently: It can actually fire sticky silk out of its fangs, not just from its backside, but out of its very mouth. At a range of less than half an inch, it doesn’t have the reach of the green lynx spider, but then again, spewing a Kevlar net from your mouth is more difficult. As if this weren’t unusual enough, the webbing is venomous. In effect, this means that the spider doesn’t have to bite its prey. All it needs to do is put it in contact with its bodily fluids and then it can watch it die slowly under a net of poison glue.
To make sure the prey is subdued, spitting spiders wiggle their heads from side to side at a rate of 1,700 times per second to spray zig-zag pattern while they fire, maximizing the spray. The whole spit attack happens in one-seven-hundredth of a second. The spider can even regulate how much spit it sprays depending on the prey’s size and how much it’s likely to struggle.
Funnel Spiders Aren’t Funny
There are 40 different kinds of funnel web spiders and they are all found in Australia. The spiders get their names because of the distinctive style in which they build their webs. They find wet grounds and then build a horizontal web with a funnel in the center of it that often leads into the ground or some other type of shelter. The spider waits in the funnel until prey lands on it and then springs out and drags the prey down.
What sets the funnel web spider apart from other spiders that build horizontal webs is that it uses irregular strings to set trip wires near the entrance of the web. This gives the spider an advanced warning that prey is nearby.
One of the most dangerous of the funnel web spiders is the Sydney funnel-web spider, specifically the males. They are generally found within a 62-mile radius of Sydney and can grow to two inches long. However, one was found to be a whopping four inches long. What makes them so terrifying is that the bigger the spider, the more venom they produce, and Sydney funnel-web spider venom is some of the most dangerous in the world. In fact, it can kill a human in 15 minutes. The good news is that there is an anti-venom that was developed in 1981 and no one has died since its discovery. Before that, it was responsible for 13 recorded deaths.
Cartwheeling to Freedom
Not all spiders laze the day away in a fortress of adhesive webbing, surrounded by mummified insects. Some actually go out and hunt for a living. And while you’ve got to be fast to catch prey, you’ve got to be even faster to escape predators.
Enter the golden wheel spider, which has a special defense to escape its erstwhile archnemesis: cartwheels. When threatened, the golden wheel spider will curl its legs around its body to make a ball. It will then basically roll down the slope like a tire to safety. Its enemies can only shake their fists at the sky while the daredevil spider cartwheels away in victory.
It might not be the most dignified or manly escape method, but it is effective.
Hypodermic Needles Built In
Grasshoppers, beetles and spiders all have something in common: They crunch when you smash them. That’s because they’re covered in chitin. Insects, arachnids, crustaceans and lots of other creatures have exoskeletons composed of this material – it’s the bug equivalent of bone, only it’s on the outside.
To kill its prey, a spider has to get through this armor. And since spiders are composed of the same stuff, their fangs are also made of chitin…which is a problem. To pierce an object, a blade has to be harder than the substance it’s going through. Scientists, wondering how spiders dealt with this quandary, looked at the fangs of the feared Brazilian wandering spider, one of the deadliest arachnids in the world.
Chemical analysis and X-ray detection showed that their fangs have metal atoms dispersed throughout, mainly copper, magnesium, iron and zinc. The metals accumulate each time the spiders molt, meaning that older spiders have harder fangs.
Biometals in bugs isn’t unknown. Leafcutter ants have a small percentage of zinc in their mandibles. But amazingly enough, almost no chitin was found in the tips of wandering spider fangs. The points, which have to endure the most stress, were composed almost entirely of metal. They literally have hypodermic needles for fangs. Wandering spiders have metallically reinforced poison-injecting blades built into their faces.
Trapdoor spiders are truly remarkable – and appropriately named. The females will build a burrow and create a camouflaged waterproof hinged door made out of a mixture of saliva, silk and soil. The door isn’t just for show. It’s for ambush. When hunting, she props the lid open slightly and waits. Picking up on the slightest vibrations of potential prey passing nearby, she suddenly bursts through her trapdoor, strikes with two large fangs and pulls the victim back into her lair for dinner.
These underground hiding places have a more complicated structure than it first appears. The spiders dig a perfectly circular hole almost a foot deep. When the temperature gets too high, they fashion a second trapdoor, which helps disperse heat and offers an emergency escape hatch from predators.
When not hunting, the spider spends the majority of her time beneath her trapdoor and lives a fairly long life. One specimen studied by scientists made it to the ripe old age of 43 before she died in 2016.
Trapdoor spiders may ambush specialists, but they’re not the only scheming geniuses in the spider world.
The Einstein of Spiders
In the pantheon of superpowers, one normally doesn’t put “super legs” at the top. At first blush, it would seem fairly unlikely that this would ever be useful. But in reality, spider legs are incredible in a number of ways. Spiders are designed for crawling and climbing, but not jumping – at least one would have thought. Leaping about is more the domain of muscular-legged bugs like crickets and grasshoppers, which is why it’s all the more amazing that the spider known as Portia fimbriata can essentially catapult itself at prey.
Found in Australia, Asia and Africa, spiders in the Portia genus actually have three “superpowers.” The first is an incredible ability to jump. The Portia spider is, as you may have guessed, a jumping spider, and is able to leap to 50 times her own body length. Nowhere seems beyond her reach.
Her second superpower is superb eyesight. Most spiders have eight eyes, but there are many different configurations. Jumping spiders have the best eyesight in the spider world. With their eyes positioned around their head, they possess near 360-degree vision, surpassing that of humans. They also have extra wide color vision.
Portia is a spider-eating spider. This raises a few problems. Her lunch can be three times her size, packed with venom and surrounded by a sticky web. Mission impossible? Not at all. Because of her third superpower. Portia is a genius. She can map her world in three dimensions and formulate a plan of attack. She can have an idea. She methodically plans winding detours to sneak up on spiders.
She chooses a leaf above her prey and slowly lowers herself on a thread until she is ready. Then she strikes, right on target and safely behind her victim’s fangs. Her prey never saw her coming.
If she can’t find an anchor point to drop down onto her lunch, she has another idea. Instead of going to the spider, she brings the spider to her. She does this by plucking the spider’s strands to imitate struggling prey, drawing the spider in…to its death.
Scientists were so amazed by how these spiders not only plan ahead but change their strategy if an approach doesn’t work the first time that they decided to study their smarts in the lab. They found that Portia spiders can navigate and plan routes through mazes and can find their way to a tasty snack after only seeing the path briefly. They’ve also been known to use trial-and-error to escape from a platform surrounded by water rather than just using the same failing method each time.
The List Goes On and On
The list of spider superpowers goes on and on. Some spiders can…
Mimic ants when in danger (ants are very distasteful to most animals).
Buzz like bees to scare off a predator.
Produce over a thousand eggs at a time. Carry their young on their backs. When a young one falls, it quickly climbs up the nearest leg and back on mother again.
Change colors to suit their surroundings.
Spin a circular marvel of straight lines and close to 1,000 individual attachments, all engineered with great mathematical precision, in under 30 minutes.
Molt their skin 12 or more times in less than two years. (They literally walk out of their old skin each time.)
Live on top of Mt. Everest (alt. 22,000 feet).
The spider is one of the creatures Rav Avigdor Miller singles out as defying the belief that they and their superpowers came to be by accident. “It strains the credulity of a child,” he writes, to assert that the incredible engineering genius of the spider evolved gradually:
“Even an orphan baby spider knows exactly what to do, without benefit of instruction. Is this ingrained skill a result of accidental sudden gene mutation? Had this not been so from the beginning, then before this skill was acquired, the threads would have been ineffective and would not have enabled the spider to survive. Loose threads cannot trap a fly.
“Even the single thread issuing from the spider is a miracle of chemistry and mechanical ingenuity which cannot be explained by any of the ‘accident’ theories. A creature which can spit out a rope is a vastly purposeful machine: the tiny laboratory-gland is capable of synthesizing a substance which is so chemically planned that it is a liquid when inside the gland, but when expelled and coming in contact with the air, it instantaneously congeals into the precise consistency of a flexible rope. In addition to this open miracle, the spider’s tiny brain possesses a built-in control system which causes him to suspend the threads in precise mathematical pattern like a skilled engineer. The fly struggles when caught in the web, and the flimsy gossamer ought to snap or disintegrate. But the threads are so cunningly spaced and balanced, according to the best principles of architectural engineering, that despite their extreme weakness, they are able to withstand the struggles of the trapped insect. Otherwise, the spider could not exist.”
Next time you see a spider – and before you get grossed out – stop a moment and think. It’s one of the most amazing examples of nifla’os haBorei, a wonder the Creator has put in this world to remind us that He’s the Designer of all.
Rabbi Miller on Spider Lessons
An excerpt from Yaakov Astor’s Rav Avigdor Miller on Olam Haba, newly released by Judaica Press:
The spider seizes with its hands; she is in the palaces of the king” (Mishlei 30:29). Spiders are constantly driven from one room to another, yet are always around. You can’t get rid of them. Through the spider, Shlomo Hamelech sees the lesson of persistence: never give up.
In any business endeavor, hold on and persevere even if at first your efforts seem unproductive. You’ll be surprised at the results. Many successful people had setbacks at the beginning. “Kol haschalos kashos – All beginnings are hard” (Rashi to Shemos 19:5). In life, a lot of things are difficult at first, but stubborn people win out. This is based on the principle: “In the way a man wants to go, Hashem leads him” (Makkos 10b). If you want something hard enough, even in business, you’ll succeed. Don’t run around and change from one thing to another. Stick to what you’re doing, whatever it is. If you persevere, you’ll have some kind of success eventually.
Perseverance is also key to raising your children successfully. If you have a slow child, don’t give up. There are a lot of boys who were slow when they were little. I know this from experience. Some boys are late bloomers. They couldn’t learn Alef-Bais. They couldn’t put an alef with a kometz. Parents have told me their frustrations. It was eating their hearts out. But the parents persevered. They put sweat and blood into their children. Eventually, their sons became talmidei chachomim. It has happened again and again.
I was present at the hesped of Rav Moshe Mordechai Epstein zt”l, Slabodka’s rosh yeshiva. He died in Chevron, but there was a huge hesped in Slabodka. One of the eulogizers, who knew him from way back, said that Rav Moshe Mordechai didn’t have a good head when he was young, but through great perseverance he became a gadol hador. He sharpened his mind through constant labor. Finally, after many years, he became a charif, a sharp mind. It’s a remarkable thing. Anybody who is stubborn can succeed in lomdus, in learning at the highest levels.
That is the general intention of Shlomo Hamelech. Perseverance pays. But he intended more with the moshol of the spider. The nimshol (true intention) is that a man who is interested in succeeding must get a picture of Olam Haba in his mind and hold onto it through thick and thin. He must have a fiery faith, a furnace of emunah. That is going to bring him success. No matter what happens, never weaken in your emunah. Not only when you’re in yeshiva and everybody is speaking words of emunah, but when you go out into the world – a world of wickedness, immorality, apikorsus and everything else – always hold fast to your boyhood idealism. People get caught up in their personal ambitions and their emunah might become somewhat pale; it might become somewhat dim. No! Hold onto it with all your might. Constantly nurture emunah. Pour oil on the fire of this emunah. Grow more and more aware of it. Talk about it to your children. If they won’t listen, talk about it to yourself. Olam Haba should constantly be on your lips and in your heart.
Whenever you come to words about Olam Haba in davening, say them like you mean them. Like in Uva Letzion: “Venizkeh venichyeh venireh venirash tovah uvrocha lishnei yemos haMoshiach ulechayei ha’Olam Haba.” Put effort into these words. When you say in Birkas Hamazon, “Harachamon hu yezakeinu limos haMoshiach ulechayei ha’Olam Haba.” Say it with a fire.