Littell's Living Age/Volume 148/Issue 1909/The Influence of a Tuning-Fork on the Garden Spider

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Having made some observations on the garden spider which are I believe new, I send a short account of them in the hope that they may be of interest to the readers of Nature.

Last autumn, while watching some spiders spinning their beautiful geometrical webs, it occurred to me to try what effect a tuning-fork would have upon them. On sounding an A fork and lightly touching with it any leaf or other support of the web or any portion of the web itself, I found that the spider, if at the centre of the web, rapidly slews round so as to face the direction of the fork, feeling with its fore feet along which radial thread the vibration travels. Having become satisfied on this point, it next darts along that thread till it reaches either the fork itself or a junction of two or more threads, the right one of which it instantly determines as before. If the fork is not removed when the spider has arrived it seems to have the same charm as any fly; for the spider seizes it, embraces it, and runs about on the legs of the fork as aften as it is made to sound, never seeming to learn by experience that other things buzz besides its natural food.

If the spider is not at the centre of the web at the time that the fork is applied, it cannot tell which way to go until it has been to the centre to ascertain which radial thread is vibrating, unless of course it should happen to be on that particular thread or on a stretched supporting thread in contact with the fork. If when a spider has been enticed to the edge of the web the fork is withdrawn and then gradually brought near, the spider is aware of its presence and of its direction, and reaches out as far as possible in the direction of the fork; but if a sounding-fork is gradually brought near a spider that has not been disturbed, but which is waiting as usual in the middle of the web, then instead of reaching out towards the fork the spider instantly drops at the end of a thread of course. If under these conditions the fork is made to touch any part of the web, the spider is aware of the fact and climbs the thread and reaches the fork with marvelous rapidity. The spider never leaves the centre of the web without a thread along which to travel back. If after enticing a spider out we cut this thread with a pair of scissors, the spider seems to be unable to get back without doing considerable damage to the web, generally gumming together the sticky parallel threads in groups of three and four.

By means of a tuning-fork a spider may be made to eat what it would otherwise avoid. I took a fly that had been drowned in paraffin and put it into a spider’s web and then attracted the spider by touching the fly with a fork. When the spider had come to the conclusion that it was not suitable food and was leaving it, I touched the fly again. This had the same effect as before, and as often as the spider began to leave the fly I again touched it, and by this means compelled the spider to eat a large portion of the fly.

The few house-spiders that I have found do not seem to appreciate the tuning-fork, but retreat into their hiding-places as when frightened; yet the supposed fondness of spiders for music must surely have some connection with these observations, and when they come out to listen is it not that they cannot tell which way to proceed?

The few observations that I have made are necessarily imperfect, but I send them, as they afford a method which might lead a naturalist to notice habits otherwise difficult to observe, and so to arrive at conclusions which I in my ignorance of natural history must leave to others.

C. V. Boys.
Physical Laboratory, South Kensington.