ivory towers arachnological dilemmas in academia

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The Independent Online
Last May, it was reported that Nasa was showing interest in some old research into the effects of drugs on the patterns of spiders' webs. With the help of the Ovid PsychLit database we have been investigating what progress had been made since NA Bercel, in 1959, discovered that spiders' webs go totally straggly if they are fed plasma from the blood of catatonic schizophrenics.

Research, it appears, has been concentrated on more conventional arachnid diets. In his paper, "The orb-web: An energetic and behavioural estimator of a spider's dynamic foraging and reproductive strategies" (Animal Behaviour, 1994), PM Sherman reported variations in the nightly webs of orb-weaver spiders. One conclusion reached was that hungry spiders spin bigger webs. If it is about to lay eggs, however, both thread length and web area are decreased.

In "Chivalry in pholcid spiders" (Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, 1983), however, WG Eberhard had shown that male spiders give their own food to females with whom they cohabit. This results in paired males eating less than single males, though females with a live-in arachnamour consume the same amount as single females of the same species.

In the study "Portia labiata, a cannibalistic jumping spider, discriminates between own and foreign eggsacs" (Int. J. Comp. Psych, 1994), RJ Clark and RR Jackson report on how difficult it is to confuse female spiders into eating their own eggs. Experiments showed that a female would eat another's eggs whether placed in her own web or theirs, but would not eat her own eggs, even when they were left in another spider's web.

This may provide some important generalisations for male shopping behaviour in supermarkets (do men with hungry wives need bigger trolleys?) or psychological profiling of serial cannibals. Nasa please note.

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