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'Flying' spiders glide from trees, control where they land

(Courtesy of the University of California Berkeley)


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BERKELEY, California — Those who are afraid of spiders may want to avoid hearing this news. For the first time, researchers have identified a spider that can glide through the air.

The skydiving Selenops, a nocturnal hunting spider found in South America, can jump from trees and control its direction on the way down, according to a study published Wednesday from the University of California Berkeley. The spider uses this ability to glide back to tree trunks.

"My guess is that many animals living in the trees are good at aerial gliding, from snakes and lizards to ants and now spiders," researcher Robert Dudley said in a statement. "If a predator comes along, it frees the animal to jump if it has a time-tested way of gliding to the nearest tree rather than landing in the understory or in a stream."

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Indeed, other researchers have already found snakes that use a "UFO shape" to glide and Dudley's team discovered gliding ants about a decade ago. In the Selenops case, its "wafer thin" body, which is about 2 inches across, and flexible legs allow the spider to drift and steer.

The team's findings were published in the Royal Society's journal Interface, but there are still many compelling questions yet to be explored.

"This study, like the first report of gliding ants, raises many questions that are wide open for further study," said fellow researcher Stephen Yanoviak in a statement. "For instance, how acute is the vision of these spiders? How do they target a tree? What is the effect of their hairs or spines on aerodynamic performance?"

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Natalie Crofts

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