Ovid’s Metamorphoses speaks of the orb-weavers, said to be descendants of Arachne, a figure in Greek mythology who wove beautiful tapestries and dared to challenge Athena to a weaving contest. Angry that she could find no flaws with Arachne’s work—and also because the tapestry depicted the gods in an unflattering light—Athena beat the girl with a shuttle. When Arachne hanged herself in remorse, Athena took pity and transformed the rope into a web and Arachne into a spider.
It’s an apt literary allusion for a new study on how spiders weave their webs, which is no doubt why scientists at Johns Hopkins University referenced the Ovid story in a recent paper published in the journal Current Biology. The JHU team used night vision and AI to record every single movement of several hackled orb-weavers as they spun their webs. The experiment revealed that the spiders rely on a shared set of movements amounting to “a web-building playbook or algorithm” to create the elegant, geometrically precise structures—even though they have teeny-tiny brains compared to humans.
Co-author Andrew Gordus, a behavioral biologist at JHU, said that he was inspired to undertake the project while he was out birding with his son and saw an especially spectacular spider web. “I thought, ‘If you went to a zoo and saw a chimpanzee building this, you’d think that’s one amazing and impressive chimpanzee,'” said Gordus. “Well, this is even more amazing because a spider’s brain is so tiny and I was frustrated that we didn’t know more about how this remarkable behavior occurs. Now we’ve defined the entire choreography for web building, which has never been done for any animal architecture at this fine of a resolution.”