Weaving webs of deceit

| 17/03/2021 | 21 Comments

Green Hornet writes: The other morning I was watching a spider painstakingly weaving its web and thinking what a wondrous sight it was. Legend has it that Robert the Bruce, sitting exiled in his cave, spent much of his time observing a patient arachnid busy about its work. For those who don’t know the story, King Robert the Bruce was born in Scotland’s Lochmaben Castle in 1274. He was Knight and Overlord of the district of Annandale, and in 1306 he was crowned King of Scotland – and immediately started to do what many like him did before and after, which was to try to kick the English and their army out of his country.

After being defeated at the battle of Falkland, Bruce escaped and hid out in a cave for three months. He was at the lowest point of his life and seriously thought about leaving the country and going to live in France – never coming back. According to legend, while he was thinking about what to do, he watched a spider building a web in the cave’s entrance. The spider fell down time after time, but she finally succeeded with her web. Inspired by the spider’s tenacity, Bruce decided to retry his fight and told his men: “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, and try again.” (Which is doubtless what your mother told you when you flunked at sport or blew an exam.)

He fought on for another eight years, and eventually succeeded in kicking the English out of Scotland.

There’s a spider in Cayman called an Argiope which makes amazing webs. These webs look as if the small black-and-white beastie which wove them had been on a week-long bender – they’re in the shape of a corkscrew. You find them a lot around mangroves and wetland areas. In the US Argiope spiders are commonly called “garden spiders”. These orb weavers can be almost three inches long from leg tip to leg tip and are common in backyard gardens. Although they are large and intimidating, their bite is dangerous only to people who experience severe allergic reactions to insect and spider bites. The University of Michigan reports that Argiope spiders are also called “writing spiders” because of the bold zigzag pattern that they build into their web. I still think it looks like they were hung over!

In fact, spiders come in many shapes and sizes. There’s one kind I really like in Cayman: it’s the crab spider, the wee flat jobbie which zooms around the house and hides under the baseboards. I’ve never seen one weave a web, and occasionally I have to rescue them from the shower stall.

A spider’s web is one of the most impressive architectural feats in nature, capturing morning dew and insect meals with equal grace, but the webbing rarely stands the test of time – especially over millions of years – so researchers have few samples of ancient web to study.

However, New Scientist reports that scientists have found 136-million-year-old amber encasing pieces of web and trapped insects, which helps fill in the gaps in understanding of the origin of orb webs. The finding also indicates that predatory spiders likely played a role in the evolution of flying insects.

Ancient amber

“The hunk of amber, which was collected in Spain, contains 26 web strands with a mite, a wasp leg, and a beetle stuck to some of the thread by visible droplets of web ‘glue’. Although these insects are extinct, their size and diversity match the type of prey caught in modern webs,” the story says.

“‘The advanced structure of this fossilized web, along with the type of prey that the web caught, indicates that spiders have been fishing insects from the air for a very long time,” said study co-author David Grimaldi of the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

The amber is the oldest known example of a web with trapped insects, and although only a few pieces of the web remain, the arrangement of the preserved bits strongly suggests an orb web design. The orientation of the web indicates that it was strung between objects and hung in the air, and the theory goes that the emergence of hanging spider webs might have influenced the evolution of flying insects.

“For example, members of the family Lepidoptera, which includes moths and butterflies, are covered in scales that allow them to tumble out of sticky webs. And it happens that Lepidoptera evolved around the same time that spiders produced these webs,” Grimaldi told New Scientist.”

The types of insects caught in the fossilized web are important pollinators today, and may have been darting from plant to flowering plant when they were captured by the web. Agile, powerful fliers with good vision, such as bees, would also stand a better chance of avoiding webs, much as they do today. Small, weak flies and less nimble fliers would have been, and still are, more commonly ensnared, the article speculates.

How webs work

“The finding sets the minimum age for the common ancestor of the two groups of spiders that weave orb webs, Araneoidea and Deinopoidea,” the article continues. “Because the two groups use different tricks to snag prey – Deinopoids create a Velcro-like surface to catch insects while Araneoids cover their webbing with a sticky ‘glue’ substance – scientists had long believed the orb web design was an example of convergent evolution, a process in which two organisms develop remarkably similar traits.”

Together with the age of the amber fossil, genetic analysis of the two spider families detailed in another paper in the same issue of Science indicates a common origin for orb web design, the story explains. The protein building blocks that make up spider silk are of interest to other scientists and industry because of their remarkable strength, stretchiness, and toughness. Potential applications include better bandages, bulletproof fibers, aerospace tethers, and nets.

Let’s look at tarantulas (though I am sure many of you would rather not). New Scientist reports that spinning webs is instinctive to these hairy beasts, which use the silk for everything from protecting their eggs to lining and concealing their nests.

Now scientists have discovered another silken tool used by a tarantula from Costa Rica. The zebra tarantula produces silk secretions from tiny nozzle-like structures at the tips of its feet. The substance helps the spider stick to vertical surfaces, ensuring a slip-free trek up a steep wall. “I was completely surprised to find that some spiders have tarsal silk,” said research team member Cheryl Hayashi of the University of California, Riverside. “This research is a great example of how much there is still to discover in the world around us.”

Silk specialists

The finding puts a new spin on ideas about the evolution of spiders, forcing scientists to reconsider which came first – the silk-producing structures on a tarantula’s abdomen or the foot spinners. “Spiders are famous for their ability to spin silk from their abdominal spinnerets. But it was previously unknown that any spider could make silk from their feet,” Hayashi told LiveScience.

“This is what scientists have known: Inside a tarantula’s body a silk-spinning factory is hard at work. Special glands whip up batches of silk proteins made from chains of amino acids. The proteins are mixed into a watery solution before being funneled through looping ducts that lead to openings called spinnerets on the outside of a tarantula’s abdomen. The spinnerets act like valves to control the thickness of silk strands. Each tarantula produces five or six types of silk for various uses,” the article reports.

Now there’s one more silk type. “The researchers, led by Stanislav Gorb of the Max-Planck-Institut for Metals Research in Stuttgart, Germany, coaxed zebra tarantulas (Antrodiaetus seemanni) to walk up vertical glass surfaces,” says the story.

“When a spider began to slip, it would send out strands of silk from nozzles at the ends of its eight legs. The tethers put the brakes on the spider’s descent, leaving behind what looked like a series of ‘footprints’ consisting of dozens of thin, silk fibers with diameters 10 times smaller than human hair.”

Tarantulas like this one also have thousands of microscopic hairs on each foot that generate molecular forces between the surface and the spider’s feet – in addition,  foot claws can latch onto rough surfaces for added traction. But during the lab walk, the zebra tarantulas neglected these sticking tactics in favor of the silk strands from their feet.

The Bard noticed, of course

The remarkable web-weaving ability of spiders was noticed, of course, by Shakespeare. In Twelfth Night he writes for Viola: “Oh what a tangled web we weave / When first we practice to deceive.”

It’s like the web of commercial greed that has been woven in Cayman over the past 50 years. We seem to be unable to extricate ourselves from it. Tangled like hapless flies in the sticky residue of the spider’s orbs, we dance to a pretty tune while those like us continue to fly on the same course until they, too, end up in the sticky mess.

Our terrestrial environmental record in Cayman continues to be appalling – we are tangled in a web of overdevelopment and gridlock. We just can’t seem to figure a way out of it. Despite an initial burst of optimism in the early days that the PPM was going to do things differently, we see them heading into the same traps which snared their predecessors.

Two recent events, as the frenzied lead up to the looming election gains frantic speed, highlighted this inability to think outside the box. The first was the announcement that we will continue our road-building frenzy towards the Eastern Districts, accompanied by joyous shouting that the travel time to West Bay is so much shorter now since the Esterley Tibbetts Highway opened, counterpointed by moaning and groaning from those who stagger into town from Bodden Town and Savannah.

The second was the revelation that the National Conservation Council had finally been appointed just in time with a pro-development coven of new members to further emasculate efforts of the Department of Environment and would be approving a few more mega-developments like Dart’s Indigo Hotel plus more destruction of South Sound (what’s left of it). Not to mention the coming home to roost of the incredibly flexible ordinary high water mark which will enable the seas along Seven Mile Beach to soon be entering the hotel and condo lobbies.

And so, orchestrated and conducted by the Lodge, our politicians and their development cronies continue to weave their webs of deceit around the ecological health of this island.

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Category: Land Habitat, Science & Nature, Viewpoint

Comments (21)

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  1. Les Ismore says:

    The writer would be better placed producing meaningless governmental position papers.

    • Anonymous says:

      Don’t know how long the writer has been here, but he should have recognized Cayman pre the forever honorable, followed by the downward spiral in the last 25/30 years.

  2. Anonymous says:

    This piece is too long and statistics show that items that are too long end up losing the readers attention span and interest overall. However the input is good, but it could have been shorter.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Great and insightful analogy! The last paragraph is VERY important – it makes the point complete!!

    • Anonymous says:

      Until the last paragraph I had no idea what he was talking about. In fact I only read a little bit and quit but then then came back after the comments.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Thank you for writing this interesting and educational piece. Good analogy.

    P.S. Disregard comments about it being too long.

  5. Anonymous says:

    A long, loooong time to get to the point

  6. Anonymous says:

    You were fine up to your very last paragraph. Then you blew it. Shame!

  7. Anonymous says:

    The remarkable web-weaving ability of spiders was noticed, of course, by Shakespeare. In Twelfth Night he writes for Viola: “Oh what a tangled web we weave / When first we practice to deceive.”

    For all his/her previous intelligent discourse, the Green Hornet may have overextended him/herself with a veritable garden of disinformation sprinkled into his/her A-level zoology report.

    As others will know, the quote attributed to Shakespeare is actually from a poem by Sir Walter Scott.

    However, as a proud Freemason I wonder from the very last sentence of this viewpoint if Green Hornet is suffering from the early onset of dementia, or if like many people in these Covid-19 times, it just feels more comforting to embrace conspiracy theories rather than seek truth.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Three points, Green Hornet: (1) You may as well use your real name given the highly scientific nature of this post. (2) It’s so long and technical you probably lost a lot of readers. (3) You speak of the “road building frenzy to the eastern districts” and make some point about Esterley Tibbetts compared with the moaning and groaning of those of us coming in from BT and Savannah. Your point? I don’t know, perhaps I’m too dim. But I can tell you this, I want the frenzy of road building to the East because I am bloody fed up of the terrible commute from East which has been going on for the last 30 years so while I don’t want the environment to be trashed, I also don’t want anymore to have to allow two hours or more if there is an accident to do a 30-40 minute journey to make a meeting at 8:30 in George Town.

    • Anonymous says:

      ” It’s so long and technical you probably lost a lot of readers..” That is a tragedy.

      We live in an age of instant messaging, instant gratification and Instagram… Our brains are conditioned to only process short sentences, emoji and abbreviations…Are we regressing mentally?

      “…I want the frenzy of road building to the East because I am bloody fed up…” Your anger is misplaced.

      If professional traffic planners, engineers, road designers, NOT POLITICIANS, were solving Grand Cayman’s traffic and transportation problems, you would not be spending 2 hours sitting in traffic.

      You won’t allow a politician with no medical license to remove your appendix, then why do you allow a jack(s) of all trades, master(s) of none to solve traffic nightmare in Grand Cayman? If they had a clue of what they were and continue doing, Grand Cayman transportation system would have never been in a such mess.

      • Anonymous says:

        8:34am – I think I’m in love…

        SO very well said. These people just do not get it. And they hate it when anyone says that. But the truth hurts.

        Signed – Paper Driftwood for 35 yrs
        People like us wish we could have had a more positive input but for the first 10 years you just hide and watch while keeping your trap shut so you don’t get the boot with your next work permit.

      • Anonymous says:

        • Mr Joseph Hew, MLA (apparently the site was not updated to reflect changes) http://www.legislativeassembly.ky/portal/page/portal/lglhome/members/previousmembers/members20132017/jhew

        Councillor to the Minister of District Administration, Tourism & Transport
        Sixth Elected Member for George Town

        No information about Education and work experience.

        • Hon Joseph Hew, MLA
        Minister of Commerce, Planning and Infrastructure
        Cayman Islands Government

        No information about Education and work experience.

        How a person can be Minister of Commerce, Planning and Infrastructure with no relevant education and work experience? What his professional qualifications are? Is he an engineer? Where do I find information about his credentials related to Commerce, Planning and Infrastructure?

      • Anonymous says:

        “We live in an age of instant messaging, instant gratification and Instagram… Our brains are conditioned to only process short sentences, emoji and abbreviations…Are we regressing mentally?”

        If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, did it really make a sound? Based on your level of condescension, I’m guessing you’re a Boomer who doesn’t approve of the way the younger generation communicates. Complain all you want about regressing mentalities and brains being conditioned to short sentences and emojis, but 8:22’s point is valid for many readers, particularly in a forum like this one. And his/her third point, i.e. how does this affect me?, is even more relevant.
        You are also dead wrong about the cause of the problem. There have been many public servants and many top-notch engineering consultants (CH2M Hill ring a bell?) that have suggested effective solutions to Cayman infrastructure woes. The politicians almost always get in the way of implementation of those infrastructure projects because they a) would rather spend the money in a different way b) know better than the experts, or c) want the company of their spouse/bother/sister/cousin/friend/political donor to get the job. The John Gray High School debacle is a classic example of this, as is the Royal Watler Port project, the Dr. Horter hospital project and, to the point of roads, the Master Ground Transportation Plan developed in the 80s and abandoned by successive governments.

        • Anonymous says:

          Thank you, 1:03. I am 8:22 and 10:26 and did not intend to be entirely negative about Green Hornet whose writings in the past I have admired and appreciated. Your analysis of the causes of the problem is also astute. I know this because I was a civil servant and saw some of the attitudes and activities you refer to when I worked across two ministries. Perhaps I got a bit overheated at the need for roads to the eastern districts but quite frankly I think a lot of the views we get about this matter are expressed forcibly by people who live in George Town and what I refer to as the West Bay peninsula, for whom a commute to town is a breeze not a nightmare. I get tired being lectured to by them about an issue that long ago was resolved as far as their own commuting needs were concerned.

          • Anonymous says:

            Traffic in GT and all down WB Road feels like the busiest Christmas traffic ALL THE TIME these days. And we don’t even have actual tourists at the moment!
            WTF Happened??? My friend DR said it’s the 2000+ rental cars that have been sold.

            And then on a FB women’s group people saying they are headed here on a work permit or have newly arrived asking about shipping a car over and about the POS’s from Japan! Yep! Keep bringing them in!

    • Anonymous says:

      Any wider roads that lead to smaller ones aren’t going to get you anywhere faster. But keep the dream alive I suppose.

      • Anonymous says:

        Correct, 9:58. That’s why some government offices should long ago have been moved out into the eastern part of the island to get the traffic flowing in another direction to alleviate, at least to some limited extent, the bottlenecks caused by everyone heading ‘to town” to go to work, schools, healthcare facilities and so on. But when proposals associated with this sort of thinking were floated in the late nineties early 2000s, they were immediately shot down by the powerful George Town/West Bay peninsula lobby. Imagine the horror of us having to drive east!! East, my dear! God, no!

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