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Scientists Explain How Spiders Use Electric Fields to Fly



In a fascinating finding, researchers have shed light on how some spiders can use electric fields present in the atmosphere to fly. Researchers Charbel Habchi and Mohammad K. Jawed from the Notre Dame University-Louaize, Lebanon have meticulously simulated the process through which spiders can drift and float like a balloon using electrostatic forces or air currents. The research, which was published in Physical Review E, highlights the significance of the spatial arrangement of threads emitted by spiders to fly. The research describes the force balance which determines if the spider would fly or not. According to the study, forces that act on a spider’s silk threads help it in getting off the ground. In one possible explanation of the phenomenon, spiders might be using the air which rises after getting warmed by the Sun. In the second explanation, the weak vertical electrical fields of the atmosphere might be acting on the static electric charge present on a spider’s threads.

In order to explain the phenomenon, researchers used an algorithm developed by the computer graphics community. “Several hit Hollywood movies, such as the Hobbit and the Planet of the Apes series, have used this formulation for fur and hair.” Charbel Habchi told Rachel Berkowitz, editor for Physics. In the algorithm, each thread of the spider is divided into many “spaghetti-like segments” that can twist, stretch and bend.

While simulating an Erigone spider, the researchers used a 2-mm-wide solid sphere and attached 2, 4 or 8 threads vertically on top of it. The individual threads were then coated with electric charges. It was observed that the spider was lifted from the ground by the electric field. Meanwhile, the charged attached threads initially remained in place but soon spread apart due to the repulsion force between them.

The researchers also noted that the downward drag decreased as the spider accelerated upward and this combined with the spider’s weight, resulted in the cancellation of the lifting force. In their conclusion, it was found that multiple threads can retain an ordered arrangement when charged rather than tangling.

Habchi added that small spiders can fly using just electric fields in the absence of any upward airflow. Whereas, he also stated that big spiders on the other hand may require a boost from upward airflow to lift off the ground.

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