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NCSE Likes Spider Silk

We're very pleased that the National Center for Science Education has chosen to make a free excerpt of Spider Silk available. The NCSE defends the teaching of evolution in US public school science classrooms. We hope you enjoy this taste of the book.
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Feet and Glue

[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.  Read More 
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Congratulations, Boris Leroy!

Congratulations to Boris Leroy, of the Universite de Rennes! Boris won the Student Distinction Award at the 26th European Congress of Arachnology, and his prize was a copy of Spider Silk, donated by Yale University Press. Written with Mauro Paschetta, Morgane Barbet-Massin, Nicolas Dubos, Alain Canard, and Frederic Ysnel, Boris’s presentation addressed “The future of threatened spiders in the face of climate change: insights with Dolomedes plantarius (Clerck).” Because individual spider species have adapted to particular humidity and temperature ranges, they may serve as excellent indicators of how global climate change will affect the future distribution of various species of other animals. Boris and his colleagues modelled present and future distributions of D. plantarius, an endangered fishing spider, explaining how various models are constructed and how accurate they are likely to be.  Read More 
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Arachnophilia

Here are links to two interesting blog posts about spiders likely to be encountered in many parts of the US at this time of year:

Bill Hilton, Jr., writes about a variety of spiders and their webs at This Week at Hilton Pond in a post titled "Spiders of August: The Case for Arachnophilia."

Bug Eric writes about Argiope aurantia. Eric writes about spiders most Sundays. Read More 
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Spider Silk on Future Proof

Earlier this month, I had a fun interview with Jonathan McCrea of Ireland’s Future Proof radio program. Here’s the podcast; my segment starts at 10 minutes in.


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42,473 and Counting

The newest version of The World Spider Catalog, by Norman Platnick of the American Museum of Natural History, is now online. This amazing document lists every species of spider described so far and includes counts of species in each spider family, a summary list of fossil spiders, and a massive bibliography. As of June 21, arachnologists have identified 42,473 spider species, but I wouldn’t be surprised if a few more have been identified since then. Read More 
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Royal Society Likes Spider Silk

And even more good news! Spider Silk has been longlisted for the Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books, which "celebrates the best in popular science writing." Wow!! The judges say, “This book uses an unlikely subject to draw out many of the major principles of biology, drawing the reader into the surprisingly fascinating world of the spider.” Read More 
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ForeWord Reviews Likes Spider Silk

We're very pleased to announce that ForeWord Reviews has named Spider Silk the Silver Award winner in the Nature Category of its Book of the Year Awards. Because we've had so much support from our publisher, Yale University Press, it's especially nice to get an award "honoring excellence in independent publishing." Read More 
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Breathing, Underwater

A fascinating new study published in the Journal of Experimental Biology has found that the silk diving bell of the European water spider, Argyroneta aquatica, is more than just a bubble-holding net: it actually functions like a gill, drawing oxygen from the surrounding water.

You can watch a water spider in action here. Notice how it pops its abdomen above the water surface to gather more air to drag back to the diving bell. Read More 
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Angleless Angling

People and other animals have always adapted spider silk to their own purposes. Here's a spectacular piece of footage from Jeremy Wade's Animal Planet "River Monsters" series showing a skillful South Pacific fisherman using Nephila, or golden orb weaver, silk as an all-in-one tool. Notice the golden hue of the silk, and just how stuck into the tangled silk the fish gets. I wonder whether the aggregate silk protein glue that lies along the web's capture spiral survives its swish through the salt water and that's what the fish sticks to, or whether the fish simply gets major ampullate and flagelliform silk wound around its teeth. Thanks to Green Matter for the tip.


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