Stories tagged arthropods

Sep
24
2009

The golden web of an orb-weaver: Little does this spider suspect that it is about to be captured and milked by the clinically insane.
The golden web of an orb-weaver: Little does this spider suspect that it is about to be captured and milked by the clinically insane.Courtesy Tai Po Kau Nature Reserve
After decades of frustration and failure, mankind’s dream of weaving a blanket entirely from the stuff of nightmares has become a reality.

For centuries, the very possibility of creating fabric from nightmares was considered little more than a fever dream, and the criminally insane resigned themselves to nightmare cloth substitutes, like hammered-flat baby rabbits, and prison toilet paper. Inventive though these are, like soymilk, they fooled no one.

Then, at the end of the 19th century, reports began to filter from Africa that a French missionary in Madagascar, exploring the dark peaks of his own madness, was creating fabrics of almost pure nightmare.

The missionary had supposedly created a spider-milking machine, into which he was placing massive Golden orb-weaver spiders, collected in their hundreds by local young girls. (Having little girls collect the spiders made the nightmare purer, but was not strictly necessary. Leave it to a missionary for such meticulous detail.)

The spiders were restrained in “a sort of stocks,” and then the beginnings of a strand of silk was coaxed from their abdomens and attached to a hand cranked wheel, at which point several hundred yards of the orb-weavers’ characteristically golden silk could be withdrawn from each spider. When the creatures could yield no more silk, they were released, apparently unharmed, back into the wild, where they would regenerate their webbing material after several days. The spooled spider silk could then be woven like any other material… but scarier.

Seemingly too “good” to be true, the missionary’s experiments were never replicated, and generations of madmen made do with sheets of dried bat saliva and mortuary blankets. Until now.

A “textile expert” and a visionary in what liberal arts colleges refer to as “insane studies,” Simon Peers and Nicholas Godley, recreated the missionary’s spider-milking machine, and after four years and one million spiders they have created an indestructible golden blanket, woven of pure nightmares.

The madmen discovered that while a single spider might produce a strand of silk up to 400 meters long, the material is, of course, exceptionally light. It took approximately 14,000 spiders to produce a single once of silk. The final 11 foot by 4 foot piece of fabric weighed about 2.4 pounds (~38 oz). So many, many spiders were involved, and lots of time. To help pass the long months of spider-milking, the artists whispered their secrets into mouse holes, and built razor blade houses.

The final intricately patterned textile has a rich, naturally golden color—the golden orb-weaver is named for the color of its silk, which attracts pollen-seeking insects in sunlight, and blends with background foliage in shadow. The spiders can adjust the exact tone of their webbing based on ambient light levels and color, so this textile has a unique shade based on how a million spiders perceived the room containing the tiny spider stocks.

The fabric is also exceptionally strong. Spider silk can stretch to 140% without breaking, and has tensile strength comparable to or exceeding that of modern fabrics like Kevlar, used for bullet-proof body armor. The complex protein structure that gives spider silk its strength has also makes it very difficult to reproduce artificially (that is, it hasn’t been done). Attempts have been made to insert the gene for spider silk protein production into goats, which then produce the protein in their milk, if not actual fibers. Unlike silk moths, spiders aren’t suited for mass production of silk, as they tend to kill and eat each other. And so it takes a madman, obsessed with drawing the secreted material for trapping prey from a hand-sized, venomous arachnid predator, to obtain enough spider silk to actually make something form it.

Despite civilization’s unwritten, yet long-standing rules against allowing madmen to have golden bulletproof cloaks, there is little to be done in this situation, seeing as how they made it themselves. Out of nightmares.

The textile is now on display at the American Museum of Natural History. (And, again, a photo of it can be seen here.

Apr
07
2009

Me and a thing: And what should I name this thing, I wonder?
Me and a thing: And what should I name this thing, I wonder?Courtesy JGordon
Hey Buzzketeers. I have to apologize—I understand that some of you set your watches and schedule your insulin injections by JGordon’s regular postings… and here I am, contributing nothing to the Buzz in, what, over a week? Yes, over a week.

So I’m sorry. I hope you all have support networks that helped you set your watches and administer insulin. I have some good excuses though. Seriously.

Excuse A: JGordon has been working through some personal issues. I think we’re all close enough now that I can elaborate on this a little bit. I mean, it’s complicated, of course, but the long and short of it is that my grandmother hit me in the head with a hammer. She’s way old, and can’t swing a hammer worth carp, but still… it’s more of a trust thing. Knowing that someone who loves you would smack you in the noggin with a claw hammer given the chance… It’s a lot to deal with, OK?

Excuse B: I’m on vacation, remember? (Sort of. Dealing with the hammer attack has made this feel a lot less like a vacation. Technically a vacation still, though.) It turns out that I’m in Hawaii, and it turns out that Hawaii has all sorts of interesting sciencey things. And it turns out that I have a little video camera with me. And while it turns out that I haven’t felt much like video taping my vacation, it also turns out that I can’t go very long without things getting a little sciencey. Quasi-sciencey, at least.

So let’s see… how do I get this thing to work… is this the right button?