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Unusual Aussie spider builds one-of-a-kind nest with super strong silk

New research suggests the lobster pot web of the basket-web spider is so robust that it doesn't require vegetation to maintain its structural integrity. Photo by Mark Elgar/University of Melbourne
New research suggests the lobster pot web of the basket-web spider is so robust that it doesn't require vegetation to maintain its structural integrity. Photo by Mark Elgar/University of Melbourne

Oct. 19 (UPI) -- As far scientists know, no other spider builds a nest quite like the Australian basket-web spider.

Thanks to a new study, published Monday in the journal Scientific Reports, scientists now know how the spider's lobster pot-like web keeps its structure without the help of vegetation.

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"This silk retains its rigidity, allowing a rather exquisite silken basket or deadly ant trap," study co-author Mark Elgar, a professor of evolutionary biology at the University of Melbourne, said in a news release.

For the study, researchers closely examined the chemical and structural composition of the spider's silk. Their analysis showed the silk is similar to the kind of silks used by other spiders to construct egg sacs.

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"Our discovery may provide insights into the evolution of foraging webs," said Elgar. "It is widely thought that silk foraging webs, including the magnificent orb-webs, evolved from the habit of producing silk to protect egg cases. Perhaps the basket-web is an extension of the protective egg case and represents a rare contemporary example of an evolutionary ancestral process."

The lobster pot trap of the basket-web spider, found only in Australia, measures just less than a half-inch in diameter and a bit more than a half-inch in length. It features a series of cross-linked threads of varying diameters.

Researchers were able to analyze the web and its robust fibers using high-resolution imaging technologies at ANSTO's Australian Synchrotron facilities.

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"Nature has created a complex structure that, at first glance, resembles industrially produced composites," said study co-author Thomas Scheibel, professor of biomaterials at the University of Bayreuth in Germany.

"Further investigations have, however, shown that they are chemically different components and their respective properties together result in the thread's extreme elasticity and toughness, thus creating a high degree of robustness," Scheibel said. "With today's composite materials, on the other hand, it is mainly the fibers embedded in the matrix that establish the particular properties required, such as high stability."

The research suggests a new genetic material is key to the robustness of the novel silk -- a material that could be synthesized at scale for industrial applications.

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Scientists estimate, however, that additional research is needed to isolate the material and realize its potential.

"There is increasing recognition that solutions to many of the complex challenges and puzzles we face today can be found from biological systems," Elgar said.

"This so-called 'Bioinspiration' draws on some 3.8 billion years of natural selection honing biological forms, processes and systems. The potential insights from that diversity of life, about which we still know rather little, is staggering," Elgar said.

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