Cobwebs as art

Spider webs, especially cobwebs, are so complex that it can get annoying. They’re also hard to photograph — so many thin threads going every which-way in 3 dimensions, it’s easy to get lost. I’ve been gratified lately to find that I can confine spiders to make mostly two-dimensional sheets using a wooden frame in a plastic container (they prefer natural substrates), but I have no illusion that this reflects the sophistication of their natural behavior. It’s mainly a good way to get them to pose nicely for me, and to simplify moving them from one place to another.

But some people manage to capture those 3-D webs.

“Forget about spider man and his meek two-dimensional webs! Even though spider webs have been around for at least 140 million years, we have never managed to preserve, measure and display their webs in a three dimensional form. Tomás Saraceno has opened our eyes to the intricate geometry of spider webs with his newly invented scanning instrument that digitized for the first time a three-dimensional web. In fact, there is no single museum in the world with a collection of this kind. His spider web sculptures are a breakthrough in both science and art, and thanks to his methods and technique he has enabled much needed comparative studies in mathematics, engineering and arachnology, opening new fields of studies.”

(Peter Jäger, Head of Arachnology, Senckenberg Research Institute, Frankfurt am Main, and co-author of the World Spider Catalog, 2015)

There are lots of pretty pictures at that link. Everybody loves orb webs, but cobwebs are much more intricate and confusing.


  1. says

    Dear PZ, Yes, we’ve seen there is artistic merit in many spider webs. I’ve always wondered what drives some spiders to create highly geometrical webs and others look like a haystack. Wouldn’t that be a topic many would like?

  2. says

    Dear @3 birgerjohansson, you have an advantage over many of us. Your locale makes it easier than someone like SteveO who is in Australia and has to look at his watch upside down when he posts here in what is the dead of night for him.

  3. birgerjohansson says

    Thank you Shermanj.
    I try to add useful links in lieu of being good at writing comments (with a second language there is a lot of work with the lexicon).
    As for time, I am getting used to leaning the clock 90° on the side. If PZ lived in California it would really get weird.

  4. says

    @6 birgerjohansson, your command of ‘English’ is very good. I try to be fluent in it. However, I have a neighbor or twelve who are rtwingers and Nat’Cs and they are mostly fluent in gibberish.
    PZ, some spiders spin webs like a ‘mist net between two trees’ and some spin chaotic ones in basement corners. Is this, somehow, learned behavior or instinct. Obviously, the spiderlings don’t learn it from the mother. (non-biologist asking)

  5. says

    @6 birgerjohansson, we live in Scarizona. So in accordance with our repugnantcant state government policies, our clocks are mandated to face backwards. I have to sneak a peek at mine.

  6. Jazzlet says

    @ shermanj
    This comment is the ninth on this thread as I type, six of the preceding comments are from you each containing at the most two sentences. Would it be possible for you to try to post all of your thoughts in one comment?

  7. says

    I haven’t been able to find a link to anything really useful or interesting, but in his book Life’s Other Secret: The new mathematics of the living world, Ian Stewart devoted several pages to the work of a zoologist named Fritz Vollrath, who created mathematical “cyberspiders” that built realistic webs in computer simulations based on repeating simple rules. These rules would be encoded into the spider’s central nervous system, whose architecture is controlled by genes. He guessed the rules for these simulations by observation and experimentation, but also did some work using evolutionary algorithms to show how those rules could evolve.
    I find this stuff fascinating, and not just because of the cobwebs in every corner of my house. The idea that complex structures can and do result from simple repeated rules, and that the most efficient way to represent those structures is through rules that generate them appeals to the abstract mathematical part of my brain.
    And since spider webs can range from the simplest sort of fishing line to structures that resemble ladders and funnels to pits covered by elaborate trap doors, I’d say evolution has taken them in a bunch of different directions.
    Leave it to the internet, though, to have more info & pictures of webs made by spiders on LSD than on Vollrath’s work.

  8. says

    @9 Jazzlet said: This comment is the ninth on this thread as I type, six of the preceding comments are from you each containing at the most two sentences. Would it be possible for you to try to post all of your thoughts in one comment?
    I reply: I guess I missed the memo regarding the commenting rules that establish a limit to the number of posts and a minimum length requirement. I posted only 2 at a time and I suspect that reading through two short comments is not a huge challenge compared to one looonnngg comment. If Prof. Myers is displeased with my comments, he has my E-mail address and I welcome any communication from him and I will correct my commenting behavior to conform to his wishes. Those comments were mostly unique responses to other’s comments and if you have read my comments on other postings, it should be evident, given the number of comments by others, that I never intend to monopolize the comments. I let over 2 hours elapse since my last comment just so it would not appear I was abusing the privilege of posting comments. This comment is meant honestly and sincerely and not to start any ‘flame war’. It is merely a reasonable (if somewhat tongue-in-cheek) response to the question posed to me by Jazzlet .

  9. vereverum says

    Anyone who moves furniture understands why spiders do this. It is the spider version of “I wonder how it would look over there.”

    @shermanj” I find that I’ll read several short comments but merely scan n skip long ones.
    As for your #11, if’n you’d’ve slightly rearranged the next to last sentence to something like “I was meaning this comment honestly…”, and replace response in the last sentence with comment. The left side would’ve been interesting.

  10. birgerjohansson says

    I just read that spiders tend to lose out to insects in urban habitats, with the latter being more successful.

  11. birgerjohansson says

    Shermanj @ 8
    Is your part of Arizona part of “Morridor”? When the ratio of local mormons exceed a critical level, just bug out!

  12. birgerjohansson says

    Idea: GoFundMe to finance a film with a mutant spider. As hero.
    It worked for that 80s parody with Hasselhoff.

  13. StevoR says

    @ shermanj :

    Your locale makes it easier than someone like StevoR who is in Australia and has to look at his watch upside down when he posts here in what is the dead of night for him.

    Or early “witching” hours of the morning. Always have been a night owl. Haven’t had a watch in decades – but the phone and computer time figures do tend to scare the shit outta me when I see them by going so damn fast. I struggle to get to sleep even when I know i really need to and hate waking up early and yeah, insomnia sucks almost as badly as my typing does.

    Also, I too find myself leaving multiple comments usually because I stuff something up or will think of something I want to add about three seconds after hitting submit. Not so secretly glad I’m not the only one like that here. Cést la vie and to each their own & can relate and don’t mind. I do try not to annoy other people here but mea culpa. People do have their own styles and preferences & ya can’t please everyone all the time. Sorry Jazzlet.

  14. StevoR says

    @birgerjohansson : “I just read that spiders tend to lose out to insects in urban habitats, with the latter being more successful.”

    Whelp, insects always gunna have the advantage of greater numbers. Sheesh, beetles alone gawd evolution creates so very, ve-eery manyof them like an inordinate fondness.. So not that surprised.

    That said, I’m curious about read where & if you have a link or more info there please?

  15. birgerjohansson says

    Actively hunting spiders do better than web spiders in urban areas, but winged insects do even better.

  16. birgerjohansson says

    Shermanj @ 7
    I overlooked the part about the neighbors. You have
    my sympathy.
    Mormons can occasionally be great, Nat Cs…not so much.

  17. says

    @18 StevoR, I find that as I age, I get slower and time seems to pass faster. Soon life will be a blur going past. Signed up for a ‘better sleep’ seminar, but it was boring and I kept nodding off during it.
    @ 21 birgerjohansson, I guess if you have wings and good eyes you can avoid most of the tangled webs. I wish I had those to avoid the webs spun by the knuckledragger pseudo-arachnids in society. Also, some in our org. have had very bad experiences with abusive LDS, but I do know a few LDS that aren’t addicted to that cult-koolaid and I can, and do, get along with them. We won’t bug-out even though we see dangerous ratios of Rtwingnuts as well as Xtian Terrorists everywhere and it’s almost impossible to avoid them. I intend to try to bypass the snares and find ways to contribute in honest peaceful humanistic ways.

  18. Jazzlet says

    To various, my point about multiple successive comments is because you then clog up the “recent comments” list to the exclusion of most others, thus defeating the point of that list, but you’ll do wwhat you want regardless.

  19. birgerjohansson says

    The length of a comment is a compromise- people automatically scan the uppermost lines and usually skip the rest.

  20. StevoR says

    @20. birgerjohansson &#24 shermanj : Thanks. Belated but sincere. Just seen.

    @23. shermanj : Yup its already like that. LOL!

    @25. Jazzlet : Understood. I see what you are saying there. Fair enough.