strange behaviors

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  • Richard Conniff writes about behavior, in humans and other animals, on two, four, six, and eight legs, plus the occasional slither.

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Animal Music Monday: From the Diary of a Fly

Posted by Richard Conniff on July 11, 2016

This is a piece by Béla Bartók, both whimsical and empathetic, about a fly becoming caught in a spider’s web. It’s built on what musical types call ostinato, a single repeated musical phrase, and somehow over the course of less than two minutes, this captures both the buzzing repetitiveness of an insect’s life and the desperation in the face of death.

This one caught my attention because I have written about flies, without much empathy, in my book Spineless Wonders (currently out of print but one of these days I will get it back as an ebook). I have also written about spiders building their webs, and in that case I felt so much empathy that I went out to a climbing wall and tried to build my own web.  I wrote about it in my book Swimming With Piranhas at Feeding Time. Here’s an excerpt:

One day back home, I was watching a spider spin its astonishing construction between my desk lamp and telephone (it was a slow day), and I suddenly wanted to become a spider, at least for a little while. I picked up the phone (a cataclysm for the spider) and found a climbing instructor named Stefan Caporale, who agreed to help me build my own orb web, in the corner between two climbing walls at the YMCA in Worcester, Massachusetts. Caporale fitted me out with a climbing harness and Jumar ascenders. I’d never done any rope climbing, but with a slingful of the metal clips called carabiners over one shoulder and a rope bag in lieu of a silk gland over the other, I felt like Charlotte’s Web meets Rambo.

I was, of course, going to have to cheat,

starting from the moment I climbed one wall, tied my first line, and looked across 15 feet (4.5 meters) of open space to the point where I’d be anchoring the opposite end. A spider bridges this span the same way it makes a parachute, by lifting its hind end and paying a length of silk out onto the breeze. This wasn’t going to work for me.

It was cheating just to look. A spider knows what’s happening around it largely by touch. It relies on as many as 3,000 vibration sensors, called slit sensilla, most of them on its legs. Eberhard had e-mailed me this thoughtful advice on my web-building: “Do it (as much as you can) with your eyes closed.”

Having tied my line to a bolt hanger, I climbed back down and climbed up the other wall, where I pulled my spanning line taut. Then I shinnied back out the spanning line, trailing rope behind me. The idea was to leave this rope slack and let the middle of it drop down to become the hub of the web. A spider can do this blindfolded. Then it rappels down from the hub and stretches a spoke to the bottom of the web, keeping the whole thing under tension. Creeping out into midair, 15 feet (4.5 meters) above the concrete floor, I moved by millimeters. My muscles quivered. Then I began to oscillate, until I was flailing wildly from side to side and spinning sweat in all directions. It took me a half hour to get the first spokes in place. The average orb-web spider, working at an effortless trot, would already have completed an entire web, with perhaps 30 spokes. Many spiders rush to complete their webs in the last minutes before dawn, to minimize their daylight exposure to predators and also to have everything nice for insect rush hour.

Check out the whole story in Swimming with Piranhas at Feeding Time. And listen to the Bartok again. That’s a happy ending: The fly gets away.

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