We’ve Gotten Our Best Look Yet at Spiders’ Bizarre “Ballooning” Behavior

Ever been in the middle of a horrible conversation that you couldn’t get out of, or an awkward party where people looked each other in the eye instead of at their phones? We have, and we sure wish we’d had use of the strange phenomenon of spider “ballooning” on those occasions. If you’re unfamiliar, ballooning allows little arachnids to suddenly catch a ride on the wind—and in a perfect world, it’d allow you to avoid social anxiety by quickly whisking you away to safety. And maybe one day you will be able to fly away from your problems—there’s new research on this ballooning phenomenon and we’re really beginning to understand how it works.

Gizmodo picked up on the latest in ballooning news, which comes in the form of research published in the journal PLOS Biology by Moonsung Cho, an aerodynamics engineer at the Technical University of Berlin. And while there’s been plenty of previous recorded footage and analysis of spiders ballooning themselves into the wind—including that case of mass spider ballooning in New Zealand in 2017—Cho’s research helps to crystalize exactly how spiders are able to lift themselves into the air and coast so far they’ve even been found landing on ships out in the middle of the ocean.

Cho’s Crab spider subject testing the winds for flight. Image: Moonsung Cho

So how do small spiders (and, incidentally, other tiny invertebrates), manage to cruise the skies so effortlessly? It turns out they’re shooting what is basically a kite made of super-fine silk threads into the air, which is so incredibly light that it gets pushed away, along with the spider attached to it. Also, do not take the qualifier “super-fine” lightly, as these threads have diameters of around 121 – 323 nanometers. For reference, a relatively thin human hair still has a diameter of 1,700 nanometers. Yes, these little silk kites are fine indeed.

Cho et al.’s research not only recorded the incredibly thin, silk fibers of the spiders’ ballooning kites, but also the fun little dances that spiders put on as they lifted their front legs into the air to test for wind speeds. Once the spiders had performed their dances, stuck out their legs, and determined it was time to go, they would release their silk-threaded kites into the air, cut the silk safety lines tying them down to whatever they were standing on, and poof! They’d vanish. To where? Who knows. They sure don’t—seriously, the mortality rate for ballooning is extremely high.

Cho’s Crab spider subject testing the winds for flight, releasing silk kite. Image: Moonsung Cho

What are your thoughts on this new spider ballooning research? Do you wish you could employ some kind of physiological trick like this to avoid awkward Larry David-esque situations? Let us know in the comments!

Images: Moonsung Cho / PLOS Biology

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