Next, Rind had to prove that the silk had come from the spiders' feet and not their web-spinning spinnerets. Filming the Chilean rose tarantulas as they were rotated vertically, Rind, Benjamin-James Duncan and Alexander Ranken disregarded any tests where other parts of the spiders' bodies contacted the glass and confirmed that the feet were the source of the silk. Also, the arachnids only produced their safety threads when they slipped.
But where on the spiders' feet was the silk coming from? Having collected all of the moulted exoskeletons from her Mexican flame knee tarantula, Fluffy, when she was young, Rind looked at them with a microscope and could see minute threads of silk protruding from microscopic hairs on Fluffy's feet. Next, the team took a closer look at moults from Fluffy, the Chilean rose tarantulas and Indian ornamental tarantulas with scanning electron microscopy and saw minute reinforced silk-producing spigots, which extended beyond the microscopic attachment hairs on the spiders' feet, widely distributed across the foot's surface. Rind also looked at the tarantula family tree, and found that all three species were only distantly related, so probably all tarantula feet produce the life-saving silk threads.
Finally, having noticed the distribution of the spigots, Rind realised that tarantulas could be the missing link between the first silk-producing spiders and modern web spinners. She explains that the spread of spigots on the tarantula's foot resembled the distribution of the silk spigots on the abdomen of the first silk spinner, the extinct Attercopus spider from 386 million years ago. The modern tarantula's spigots also looked more similar to mechanosensory hairs that are distributed over the spider's entire body, possibly making them an evolutionary intermediate in the development of silk spinning. So, not only has Fluffy settled a heated scientific debate but she also may be a link to the silk spinners of the past.
|Contact: Kathryn Knight|
The Company of Biologists