In the late 1940s, a zoology professor at the University of Tubingen, in Germany, was studying how spiders build webs. A problem was that the spiders he was studying, cross spiders (which we have here in Maine), start construction around 4 a.m. This schedule was pretty inconvenient for him and his camera crew. So he asked the university’s pharmacology department if there might be a drug that would prompt the spiders to change their routine, hopefully more toward daytime.

A cross spider’s web built after she was given a small dose of amphetamine. Cross spiders normally build very symmetrical webs with well-spaced strands and regular angles. Photo courtesy of drpeterwitt.com.

So one of the pharmacologists, Dr. Peter Witt, gave the spiders a tiny dose of amphetamine to see what would happen. The result: The spiders kept to their 4 a.m. schedules, but “every animal which received amphetamine in the evening built a strange web in the morning.”

This proved so intriguing that Witt and other researchers continued the experiments for years. They gave the spiders chlorpromazine (known commercially as Thorazine), diazepam (aka Valium) and psilocybin, a hallucinogen made from mushrooms. They tried caffeine, strychnine, carbon monoxide, nitrous oxide, Nembutal, LSD and mescaline (which some of my fellow seekers from the 1960s and ’70s may recall inspired Aldous Huxley’s book about drugs and spiritual enlightenment, “The Doors of Perception”), among others.

Most of the experiments were made on cross spiders (Araneus diadematus), and some on Zygiella and golden silk (Nephila) orbweavers. The drugs were administered orally or by inhalation or injection in carefully controlled amounts. To get the spiders to take psilocybin orally, for example, the scientists dissolved tiny, measured amounts of a crystallized form of the drug in tap water, together with a touch of glucose to make it sweet. Then they squeezed a few drops of the solution onto the spider’s mouth parts with a microsyringe.

A Zygiella orbweaver’s web built after she was given a small dose of LSD-25 in sugar water. This web’s central angles and spiral turns are unusually regularly spaced, as in all LSD webs. Photo courtesy of drpeterwitt.com.

Analyzing the results was extremely complicated because each drug at specific amounts triggered its own peculiarities in the structure of the webs. The number of spirals and radii in a “drug web” varied according to drug and dose, and so did the angles at which the spiders set the lines. At lower doses of psilocybin, for example, the next day’s webs had significantly fewer spirals and radii, smaller catch areas, and larger mesh sizes than in normal webs. After higher doses of psilocybin, the spiders built no webs at all.

The regularity of the angles turned by spiders on psilocybin did not differ from normal webs. But the angles turned by spiders on mescaline became very irregular. Spiders on smaller doses of LSD-25 built larger webs than normal, with “significantly more-regular central angles” and “unusually regularly spaced” spirals. In other words, the low-dose LSD webs were more perfectly formed than the spiders’ everyday webs. After higher doses of LSD-25, the webs became smaller and more irregular.

Out of this research came better understanding of web-building (as well as the effects and potential pharmacological uses of the drugs). One thing to understand about spiders is that web-building is not the work of a mindless automaton. Each spider species has its own web design, and each individual spider has innate knowledge of the overall plan for that design. But the actual construction involves a lot of decision-making as each individual spider implements the overall plan to suit conditions at the site. (The site itself, mind you, is selected — not random.)

The orbweaver builds a temporary scaffolding, which it takes down after completing the main web. It determines lengths and thicknesses of threads and the precise angles necessary to stabilize and strengthen the spiral. The spider is aware of the amount of silk it has available in its system to complete the project. Each spider adapts these variables step by step to the task. When the spiders are tripping, naturally their judgment is affected. On low doses of LSD-25, the effect is enhanced — in our aesthetic and engineering views at least.

What is happening there? Does a spider have a mind? In some orb webs there is a squiggle of silk at the center called a stabilimentum whose purpose is debated by arachnologists. Some call it straight up a “decoration,” implying that at least some spiders may have some kind of aesthetic awareness.

Some kind. We have, of course, no idea what a spider’s sentience consists of. But it definitely consists of something. Orbweaving spiders perceive the world mainly through vibrations of silk and air, parallel to the way we perceive the world mainly through light and sound. Witt, in one of his papers on web-building, says: “Though the comparison may seem far fetched, one can imagine a place in the central nervous system of the spider which contains an integrated ‘touch picture’ of the environment similar to the one which may come via our eyes to the visual cortex.”

What is that world like? If one of us were to step into it momentarily, it would probably look like a psychotropic drug trip even before the spider got on the drug. In his short film “Life on a Thread,” Witt sums up the cosmic strangeness of it all in this epigraph:

“The spider spins a web and goes up and
down, seemingly walking
on nothing, of mental ability of an order
higher than common superior intelligence.”

(Belief of Cheyenne Indians of Great Plains)

Dana Wilde lives in Troy. You can contact him at [email protected]. His book “A Backyard Book of Spiders in Maine” is available from North Country Press. Backyard Naturalist appears the second and fourth Thursdays each month.


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