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The Spider Man

For more than 30 years a Viennese professor investigates chase spiders and their "supernatural" senses: Their bio sensors are one of the finest and convey ideas for future technologies.



Spider queen: A tarantula in the rain forest of Costa Rica
Picture by T. Micke

"Spiders are wonderful creatures", explains Prof. Friedrich Barth and opens the door to the breeding room in the basement of the Viennese Institute for Zoology. The look is nothing for spider sensitive tempers and people suffering under "arachnophobia": In several storage racks big, covered cucumber glasses stack up to the ceiling where up to palm-sized octopeds loll, (picture with tarantula). Chase spiders of the genus Cupiennius, weaving no nets and normally live on bromeliads and bushes, more than a hundred of them. If adding the freshly enclosed pups they count a thousand.

While entering further into the room, one has the first impression that the university's cleaningwoman must be very badly paid: Across the ceiling stretches a thick cloud of cobwebs and the attendant above our heads exercising animalbodys almost reach the size of a computer mouse. "Oh those", utters Barth laconically, "we also explore the behavior and the ability of net spiders here." And adds smiling: "The animals seemingly enjoy the nearness of the ventilation shaft. This is where fresh food often comes flying in from..."

Prof. Barth is the true "Spiderman". A bigger expert, especially concerning the South American Cupiennius-Genus does not exist. And probably there is no place to be found in this world, where so many spiders live on one blotch. For more than 30 years he occupies himself scientifically with these animals. The first arrivers of this species causing some excitement as blind passengers of banana deliveries from over sea in Munich's central market hall. From there they started their triumphal procession through the zoological labs mainly because of their toughness.

"These fascinating animals have 400 years of development behind them, explains the neurobiologist, and in the course of it generated really unbelievably capable sensor organs, which are totally new for mankind and whose attributes can be used for the development of highly sensitive sensors of robots, miniaturizations in the nanotech world or more perfect implants." In these fields Friedrich Barth works together with only remotely related research departments like the Institute for Lightweight Construction of the Technical University Vienna or the Max-Planck-Institute for Metal Research in Stuttgart. All of these teams want to learn something from the spiders.

Sensorial hairs on the legs of a Cupiennius Chase Spider
Picture by Friedrich Barth

How is it possible that the animals with their tiny "split sensors" on their legs can make a difference between a desirable Cupiennius female and a prey sitting on the same banana bush solely through the vibrations of her emergence? How can the spider distinguish the typical wing beat of a fly during a nearly pitch-dark night only with her sensor hairs in twenty centimeters distance from a breath of wind only then to catch it with a precise leap?

Prof. Barth has examined and described these so-called bio sensors very precisely and published the results in his book "Senses and Behaviors – The Life of a Spider" (Springer Publishing). He has found out, that the supersensitive split sensors of a chase spider can register compressions of only a ten-millionth millimeter. And Barth knows that on a single square millimeter leg there are up to 400 delecately fine tactile-hairs. Barth: "With the help of such sensors the spiders can develop a complex, high resolution picture of their environment, which they need for survival and reproduction."

Obvious, that different classes of technicians are interested in the spider professor's discoverys. In the world of technology one is in need of such nature role models to be mimicked, if everything is supposed to still become smaller, more compact and better. Cell phones for example almost naturally include a camera, radio, video, navigation system, electronic wallet and just recently even a sensor (Siemens), functioning as a Breathalyzer. That's why new ideas are always needed in order to compress and improve the flood of functions and their most important "informants", the sensors.

It took nature a hundred million years development time to give birth to such perfect animals, refining and improving their capabilities all the time, disregarding that they are unloved by most human beings. And in the end it seems somehow understandable that a passionate scientist like Friedrich Barth simply defines them as "beautiful"...


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© A report by Tobias Micke (17-10-04) – Contact