The Urban Scientist

The Art of Spider Seduction

Experimental artist Eleanor Morgan has a thing for arachnids

November 4, 2010

Eleanor Morgan serenades spiders.

“I am staring at a spider that is a few inches away from my neck,” she writes. “Her front leg is stretched out towards me on the silk bridge that connects us and I can see her eight eyes, which look like black pinpricks, arranged in two rows above her jaws.”

With a spider silk thread tied around her throat, she connects herself to the web of a bulbous gold spider. She hums, and waits for a response. Sometimes it doesn’t respond. Even worse, sometimes it does. If it likes what it hears, the spider creeps closer.

Sometimes too close.

“Even now, I can’t say I really feel at ease with them,” said Morgan, who showed videos of her spider encounters October 29 at the Brooklyn gallery Proteus Gowanus. The experimental artist, a doctoral student in Fine Arts at University College London, has been working with the eight-legged beasts for 4 years.

But sometimes when a spider inches nearer, she can’t handle it. Her face and neck glisten with a film of sweat. Her breathing becomes ragged. She stops humming, and her hand draws to the cord connecting her with the spider. Another twitch from the arachnid and she’s wrenched the collar loose with a gasp.

To an outsider, this seems like pure masochism.

For Morgan, it’s an art and a science. She’s interested in the strange relationship between humans and spiders. It’s a delicate one—a balance of fear, fascination, and necessity. Many people abhor them, but humans have spent centuries trying to harvest their silk. Stronger than steel, waterproof, and tensile, spider silk has been used as sewing thread, antiseptic bandages for wounds, optic enhancers for telescopes and microscopes. Nowadays, scientists are exploring its use in bulletproof vests, airbags, and medicine.

But it’s never quite been used the way Morgan uses it. That is, for seduction.

Though Morgan’s singing isn’t bad, the spiders aren’t drawn by the sound.

Despite their six to eight eyes, most spiders can’t see very well. Instead, they rely on web vibrations to know what’s around. When a mosquito gets caught in the sticky trap and struggles to free itself, the female spider knows where it is from the vibrations. Similarly, the only way for a male to get a female’s attention is by tapping on her web.

The spiders in Morgan’s experiments can feel the vibrations coming from her voicebox. And for whatever reason, it beckons them.

“With a thread attached to the throat of a singing person on one side and the web on the other, this of course introduces vibrations into the web,” said Friedrich Barth, who researches spider neurophysiology and sensory biology at Vienna University. “Provided these have characteristics reasonably close to the patterns of biologically relevant web vibrations, the spider will localize and approach the source.”

Actually, spiders have always been drawn by human music—though rarely on purpose. Morgan cites the story of an 18th century French prisoner playing music in his cell, who looked up to find himself surrounded by an eight-legged audience; a choir at a girls’ boarding school in 19th century Kensington, England regularly lured thousands of spiders from corners and rafters with their singing. When the music ended, the spiders went home.

To the horror of her audience, Morgan ended the lecture by playing a 10-minute song in hopes of luring some spiders down from the ceiling. And while no spiders were seen to drop down, many a phantom spider was felt tickling the necks and crawling up the ankles of more than one member of the crowd.

Morgan explained that her artwork is a way for her to communicate the ‘entanglement’ of fear and attraction that we feel toward spiders. “In addition, there’s a huge amount of course that we don’t know about spiders—and this also makes the fascinating.”

Fascinating creatures, for sure. You just have to suppress your shudder long enough to learn about them.

About the Author

Sarah Fecht

Sarah Fecht is a native of Syracuse, NY. She has loved Biology since a 7th-grade “Life Science” class and was one those rare people who went into college knowing what they wanted to study. She got a B.S. in Biology from Binghamton University, but got scared away from a research career at the prospect of narrowing her scientific interests into a thesis. Since then, she has retreated into the world of science journalism, where her interests have broadened to encompass astronomy, physics, conservation, technology and more.


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