Johns Hopkins University researchers have discovered how spiders create webs using artificial intelligence and night vision to track every movement of their eight legs.
The creation of a web-building strategy or algorithm by the researchers provides new insight into how animals with brains only a fraction as large as human’s can create structures that are so elegant, complex and precise. These findings are now online and will be published in Current Biology.
While birding with my son, I first became interested in the topic. After I saw the amazing web, I thought “‘If you went to a zoo and saw a chimpanzee building this you’d think that’s one amazing and impressive chimpanzee.” Senior author Andrew Gordus is a Johns Hopkins behavioral scientist. “Now we’ve defined the entire choreography for web building, which has never been done for any animal architecture at this fine of a resolution.”
For centuries, web-weaving spiders have been captivated by humans. They build their webs blindly with only their sense of touch. While not all spiders can build webs, those that can are part of a group of animal species that have been known to create intricate sand circles during mating are some examples.
Gordus stated that the first step in understanding the small brains of these animal architects is to document and analyze the behavior and motor skills involved by capturing and recording the actions.
His team examined a hackled orb weaver, which is a native to the west United States. It’s small enough that it can be comfortably seated on one fingertip. The lab created an infrared camera and infrared light arena to observe spiders as they build webs at night. They were able to monitor and record six spiders each night while they built webs using this setup. With machine vision software specifically designed to detect leg movement, they tracked millions of individual actions.
Abel Corver is a graduate student in web-making and neurophysiology said “Even if you video record it, that’s a lot of legs to track, over a long time, across many individuals. It’s just too much to go through every frame and annotate the leg points by hand so we trained machine vision software to detect the posture of the spider, frame by frame, so we could document everything the legs do to build an entire web.”
Researchers discovered that web-making behavior is very similar among spiders. They were even able to predict which part of the web a spider was creating by simply looking at a leg.
Gordus stated, “Even if the final structure is a little different, the rules they use to build the web are the same. They’re all using the same rules, which confirms the rules are encoded in their brains. Now we want to know how those rules are encoded at the level of neurons.”
Future lab work will include experiments using mind-altering drugs to discover which circuits of the spider’s brain are responsible in various stages of web-building.
Corver stated, “The spider was fascinating because here you have an animal with the same basic building blocks as us, and this work could lead to us hints about how we can understand larger brains, including those of humans. I find that very exciting.”neurons
Nicholas Wilkerson (an ex-Hopkins undergraduate who is currently a graduate student in Atlantic Veterinary College) and Jeremy Miller (a Johns Hopkins graduate student in the same field) are also authors.