MIT Researchers Want to Talk to Spiders

MIT Researchers Want to Talk to Spiders
Spiders read their environment by sensing vibrations with their hairy legs. (Photo: UWE ZUCCHI/DPA/AFP via Getty Images, Getty Images)
To sign up for our daily newsletter covering the latest news, features and reviews, head HERE. For a running feed of all our stories, follow us on Twitter HERE. Or you can bookmark the Gizmodo Australia homepage to visit whenever you need a news fix.

If you think working from home is hard, consider the spider, who lives at work in a house it built. Arachnids use their intricate webs to trap meals, navigating across the structure using the vibrations it senses through the hairs on its legs.

Today, a team of researchers at MIT report that they’ve translated those vibrations into musical tones. What’s more, they raise the prospect of someday communicating with spiders, using their vibrational world as a medium for language.

The team presented their research today during the spring meeting of the American Chemical Society. To figure out the sounds of a spider web, they hosted a spider in their lab and laser-scanned the web it constructed in two-dimensional cross-sections.

“Spiders live in this vibrational universe… they live in this world of vibrations and frequencies, which we can now access,” said paper co-author Markus Buehler, a materials scientist at MIT, in a phone call. “One of the things we can do with this instrument with this approach is we can, for the first time, begin to feel a little bit like a spider or experience the world like the spider does.”

Also a musician, Buehler regularly combines his knowledge of computational science with composition and makes music from processes of the natural world. The spider web project is larger (literally) than his previous work, which focused on translating proteins into musical compositions. One recent project translated a key protein of the novel coronavirus into sound. Many of these musical interpretations of the world are on Buehler’s Soundcloud, and all paraphrase sounds that naturally play at vibrational frequencies beyond the capacities of the human ear. Buehler and his team of seven transpose them into our audible range. Artist Tomás Saraceno digitised the 3D webs, turning them into visualisations that reveal their true complexity.

“Unlike a protein, where we have to follow the laws of quantum mechanics, a spider web follows Newtonian mechanics,” Buehler said. “We can use the same equations that we use for a guitar string. The material properties are different, but essentially it’s the same equation for the vibration itself.”

Mapped out in three dimensions, the spider’s web looks like the spectral image of a nebula. The team attributed specific sound frequencies to strands of the web, in the same way that a guitar string’s pitch will rise the shorter you make the string. They made their scans over the course of the web’s construction, shedding light on how the vibrations the spider senses take on different tones and timbres over time.

An overlaid image of different portions of the lab's spider web. (Image: Markus Buehler) An overlaid image of different portions of the lab's spider web. (Image: Markus Buehler)

They go a step beyond producing the web’s soundscape. The team has produced a virtual reality program in which a viewer plays the spider and is able to “pluck” any component of the web to hear how sound resonates from it.

When playing the web, the researchers would isolate sound coming from one part of it. Otherwise, Buehler said, the sound would be cacophonous to the human ear. Depending on your perspective, the song of the spider web may sound like wind chimes in the Twilight Zone or a bad bout of tinnitus. (I’ve never been in proximity to Aragog or Shelob, but this sounds about as terrifying as I imagine a spider lair to be).

It’s not our native musical language, though it bears a resemblance to the beginning of Childish Gambino’s “Me and Your Mama.” To a spider, the sounds mean survival, as they can hear the impact of prey on the web or sense the tap dance of a suitor.

The longer-term aspiration is to be able to communicate with a spider on a web, Buehler said. To begin that process, researchers will “play” the web in a way that elicits a response from its creator and resident. Later on, mimicking another spider in conversation could pave the way to talking with the arachnids.

“Spiders are silent, and the web itself is also something you don’t associate with sound,” Buehler said. “We’re trying to give the spider a voice…so that we can perhaps one day have a little chit chat with a spider, and maybe play a song together and jam together.”