The only thing more unsettling than wolf spiders are dead wolf spiders, reanimated in a lab by scientists. Just picture it – a mad scientist cackling wildly over the ghostly eyes of a thousand venomous hunters snapping open.
Hold on, though, before we get carried away with our Frankenstein nightmares, there’s a small reassurance in this story. The scientists are not bringing dead spiders back to life (yet … that we know of). Instead, they’re using puffs of air to imitate the spiders’ blood flow, causing their limbs to move at will.
What, that’s not all that comforting? Yeah, that’s fair.
But why are they acting as puppeteers to a mass of dead arachnids? Well, curiosity, mainly. However, engineers Faye Yap and Daniel Preston do have some ideas for putting the zombie spiders to use.
CREPPY-GRABBIES: Mechanical engineers at Rice University have found a way to repurpose dead spiders with a puff of air making them into grippers. They say they could be used for micromanipulation of things like microelectronic devices. https://t.co/H26TVomw98 pic.twitter.com/vC00yowax0— ABC News (@ABC) October 26, 2022
“There are a lot of pick-and-place tasks we could look into, repetitive tasks like sorting or moving objects around at these small scales,” Preston explained to KCRA 3. “And maybe even things like assembly of microelectronics.”
Yap added that the “necrobotic” dead spiders could also be used in insect research. “Another application could be deploying it to capture smaller insects in nature, because it’s inherently camouflaged,” she said. “Also, the spiders themselves are biodegradable. So we’re not introducing a big waste stream, which can be a problem with more traditional components.”
Engineers Explain How They Puppeteer Dead Spiders
According to Yap and Preston, the grisly experiments began with a question: why do spiders curl up when they die? Humans and other mammals simply remain in the position they died in; what makes spiders’ limbs adopt such an unnatural position postmortem?
After a bit of research, they found their answer. Unlike mammals, spiders don’t operate through nervous systems and muscle contractions. Instead, they use hydraulics. When a spider moves, a chamber near its head shoots blood into its limbs, causing them to extend. As the blood recedes, their legs contract.
“At the time, we were thinking, ‘Oh, this is super interesting,'” Yap recalled. “We wanted to find a way to leverage this mechanism.”
Further study revealed that this chamber was even more intricate than they once thought. Inside the chamber are actually separate valves for each leg that allow them to move each leg individually.
So, the engineers inserted a needle into the chamber of a dead spider and added a drop of super glue to keep it in place. They then blew air into the other end of the needle and, to their shock and amazement, the legs began to move.
The engineers are still working out the kinks of necrobotics. The dead spiders’ limbs, for example, begin to wear out over time due to joint dehydration. They hope, however, to have the spiders ready for practical use in the near future.
“Despite looking like it might have come back to life, we’re certain that it’s inanimate,” Preston explained. “And we’re using it in this case strictly as a material derived from a once-living spider. It’s providing us with something really useful.”