The Slingshot Spider

Spider-Man is famous in the world of Marvel comics for his ability to shoot threads from his wrists and trap villains in sticky nets.

His arsenal has always seemed more impressive than that of regular spiders (his crime-fighting antics would not be nearly so thrilling if he had to weave a web between the skyscrapers and wait for the Green Goblin to fly past).

However, we all know that fact is often stranger than fiction.

A regular spider waiting in its web...
A regular spider waiting in its web…

While trekking through the Peruvian jungle, scientist Lary Reeves came upon an arachnid ingenious enough to replicate the effect of Spider-Man’s mechanical web-shooters without the use of any advanced, fictional technology.

Reeves was actually searching for speckled caiman (a South American relative of the alligator) when he noticed a tiny 3mm spider crouched in the middle of a cone-shaped web. Using a silken threat, the arachnid had attached the centre of its web to a nearby plant and drawn it back like a slingshot.

As Reeves and his colleagues watched, the spider released the thread and fired its web at a passing mosquito.

Reeves believes the spider’s body may be equipped with sensory hairs which are tuned to the frequency of a fly’s wing-beats. More than once, he observed the spider releasing the web when there was no prey in sight, presumably confused by the vibrations of his breath. Fortunately for it, the diminutive hunter can easily re-set its trap by drawing the anchor-line taunt again.

While Reeves is not sure that this slingshot web is any more effective than an ordinary web, he believes it is good for catching insects that have just emerged from the water.

His colleague Phil Torres is clearly impressed by the spider’s abilities. “Imagine the difference between bumping into a sticky trap and having a sticky trap flung at you,” he says.

Since the creature’s discovery in May 2013 scientists have found other, slightly bigger slingshot spiders near their research centre at Tambopata. It is now thought that the range of these extraordinary arachnids might extend all the way from Central America towards southern South America.

The spider’s swift slingshot manoeuvre was finally caught in camera by Jeff Cremer, who filmed it at 60 frames per second using a 100mm marco lens.

When Reeves initially hurried back to the Tambopata Research Centre, he believed he had found a species new to science. However, a hunt through the archives revealed that similar spiders of the obscure Theridiosomatidae family had been documented 80 years earlier. The Naatio splendida, in particular, appears almost identical to Reeve’s as-yet-unnamed slingshot spider. Further research is needed to discern whether he really has discovered a new species.

Either way, fans of Spider-Man will surely be interested to know he’s not the only web-slinger in the neighbourhood anymore.

Louisa Watson