March 10, 2012
Last summer, a team of researchers reported they had indeed found that tarantulas secrete silk from their feet. This appeared to settle a controversy that had started in 2006 when a different team reported finding foot silk. The original finding was bound to be controversial: no one had ever before observed the secretion of silk from the feet of any kind of spider. In 2009, a team investigating the first claim couldn't find evidence of foot silk. Last summer's report, which included a micrograph that seemed to show a blob of silk protein forming at the tip of a purported foot silk spigot, appeared to validate the 2006 report. (For a discussion of these three reports and of the questions concerning silk evolution they raise, see this earlier Spider Silk blog post.)
Well, there is now more evidence that tarantulas actually DON'T produce foot silk. Rainer Foelix is a leading spider anatomist and author of the must-have Biology of Spiders. When he examined the micrographs included in last summer's report, the alleged foot silk spigots looked like chemoreceptor hairs he had studied intensively in the 1970s. Kathryn Knight summarizes what Foelix did next. He, Bastian Rast, and Anne M. Peattie report their full findings in the April 1, 2012, issue of the Journal of Experimental Biology.
Foelix, Rast, and Peattie explicity address the questions concerning silk evolution that these earlier studies raised for us. They note that--even if the silk allegedly secreted through the foot "spigots" really is silk--all the tarantulas tested tend to stay close to the ground. It's not clear, then, what survival advantage foot silk would give them, particularly when the tiny amounts produced would add little cling compared to the spiders' already clingy adhesive setae, or hairs.
Most interesting to us, the team compared the feet of the tarantulas in their study to the feet of Liphistius desultor, a mesothele. As readers of Spider Silk know, mesotheles make up the oldest extant branch of the spider family tree. They live in burrows, rarely venturing more than a few inches beyond the burrow's trap door. Foelix, Rast, and Peattie state that Liphistius has no adhesive hairs on its feet. But it does have the same hairs that earlier researchers identified as silk spigots but that Foelix et al. are pretty convinced are chemoreceptors. The tiny amounts of "silk" produced from the hairs in question wouldn't allow the mesotheles to climb, even if they wanted to.
Next step in deciding whether the hairs in question on tarantula feet are silk spigots or chemoreceptors: testing them for sensory innervation with transmission electron micrography. Down the road, we wonder whether anyone will find any evolutionary connection at all--given the evolutionary relationship between limbs and spinnerets--between the proteinaceous fluid that apparently oozes from these hairs (which are also found on the spinnerets and all extremities) and the protein silk that is secreted through spinneret spigots.
As usual, the best research leads to more questions.
October 7, 2011
[This post contains later amendments that may be instructive to other science writers. See the later posts on purported tarantula foot silk to see why.]
Three papers published this summer might at first seem unrelated. But read together, they pull the entire arc of spider silk evolution into sharper focus. Two papers indirectly address the evolutionary origins of spider silk production. The other demonstrates that the evolution of silk proteins has been central to spider evolution even after the extraordinary proliferation of silks that made the vertical orb web possible.
First, F. Claire Rind and colleagues reported that at least some tarantulas (which belong to the family Theraphosidae) do indeed secrete silk from their feet. This report appears to settle a controversy that first broke out in 2006, when a team of researchers led by Stanislav Gorb announced that they had persuaded a Costa Rica zebra tarantula, Aphonopelma seemanni, to walk on a nearly vertical surface covered with glass microscope slides. The researchers claimed that as the tarantula started to slip, it left behind “footprints” made up of miniscule silk fibers. If this observation held true, it could have important implications concerning the origin of spider silk production. Like all spiders, tarantulas secrete silk through abdominal spinnerets, small appendages ending in multiple spigots that are the outlets for the abdominal silk glands. Genetic studies have shown that spider spinnerets are the evolutionary descendants of the gill branches of ancient arthropod limbs. If spiders secreted silk from their limbs as well as through their spinnerets, this fact might not only cement the limb-spinneret connection but also suggest new hypotheses for the earliest origins and survival value of spider silk.
The Gorb report left some questions open, however. (more…)