Webs have different purposes, according to the individual species of spider, how it captures or stores its prey. Spider's silk can be used to help small, young spiders transport to new areas (ballooning) or be so strong that it is used to make fish nets, as with the Nephila spider web. |
The silk that spiders produce are used for building webs, catching prey, storing food, escaping from danger, making egg sacs, sending and receiving vibrating signals and for transportation on silken ropes called "ballooning" as the spider floats through the air on the strand of silk. This ballooning technique ensures that young spiders are scattered about. If all young were to remain in one tight area, many could starve from lack of food for number of spiders and insects in a given area. Some silk strands are stronger than steel strands of the same thickness. The silk of the Nephila spider is the strongest natural fiber known to man and is used to make tote bags and fish nets. In a specific species, spiders can use their web to capture an air bubble; with this bubble the spider can survive and hunt under water where other spiders and insects would drown.
Many types of spiders construct specific types of silken web to trap prey. These come in a variety of forms, from the familiar orb web and cobweb to sheets, funnels, tubes, ladders, and even a single thread. A single spider may produce more than a half-dozen different kinds of silk for different purposes, some sticky, some not. One kind of silk, for example, is used by many web-spinning spiders to wrap up prey after it initially becomes trapped in the web. This immobilizes the prey and makes it safer for the spider to approach and bite the potential prey. Ogre spiders (family Deinopidae) hold a small web in their front legs, and use it as a net to snare insects. Bolas spiders (Mastophora species, in the family Araneidae) have abandoned the "traditional" web in favor of a silk line with a ball of sticky glue at the end. These spiders exude a chemical which mimic certain female moths by secreting pheromones similar to the ones the moths use to attract mates. The male moths are drawn to the spider, which throws the glue ball at the moth and "reels" its victim in like an angler hauling in a fish.
Spiders use silk in mating activities, too. Male spiders construct a "sperm web" in which they secrete sperm from their gonads, so that it can be sucked up into the pedipalps. These modified mouthparts are not directly connected with the abdominal gonads. Males of many species seem to locate females by following draglines laid down by the females. These draglines seem to contain chemical signals telling the males that an appropriate female laid down the silk. Some males also use silk to tie up the females as part of a courtship ritual. Mating can be dangerous for male spiders because females are often larger and may consider the male a better meal than a mate. These silk "nuptial veils" may give the male a little extra time to escape after mating.
All female spiders wrap their eggs in silk egg sacs, often using several different kinds of silk, some leathery for protection from the outside environment, some soft and fluffy to cushion the eggs. Most spiders constantly lay down a "dragline" as they walk, which acts as a safety line if they need to jump or drop away from a potential predator, for example. Some species hang their egg sacs in or near their webs, while others carry their egg sacs around with them.
Many larger spiders find shelter in burrows they dig in the soil. These are usually lined with silk and may be capped with lids called "trap doors" which are made of silk and other materials such as soil. Many smaller spiders construct various retreats and "sleeping bags" out of silk, as well.
Small spiders can move through the air (Usually only a few feet; sometimes for hundreds of miles) by "ballooning," in which a long strand of silk attached to the spider lifts the spider up in rising air currents. By this method, spiders are able to disperse to new habitats, even to remote islands, and habitats can be recolonized rapidly after a disturbance, such as a fire that might kill most spiders living in a prairie. Spiders can only balloon if they are small (less than about 5-8 mm long), so many spiders balloon only as small immatures. Some small spiders such as sheet-web spiders (Linyphiids), though, can balloon as adults, too. Silk is clearly one big reason for the great success of spiders in so many habitats.
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