Ballooning Spiders Use Earth’s Electric Field To Fly


Till a few years back, it was believed that the silk that spiders produced caught on the wind and helped the creatures travel. But that never did make much sense. Spiders would produce this silk when it wasn’t very windy, and for a light breeze to yank and carry even large spiders was practically impossible. The question of how ballooning spiders took flight had perplexed many, including our very own Charles Darwin. But it wasn’t until 2018 that we found out that the arthropods were harnessing our atmospheric electric field to take flight. Unreal, isn’t it?

Ballooning Spiders Use Earth's Electric Field To Fly

Let’s break it down.

How do spiders harness the electric field?

Thanks to thunderstorms, our atmosphere is practically a humongous electric circuit. Even when the weather is seemingly pleasant and cloudless, the atmosphere will still have a current of around 100 volts for every meter above the ground. 

Now, if you paid attention in Science class, you know that the Earth’s surface and all that’s grounded has a negative charge, while the atmosphere boasts positive. 

Ballooning Spiders Use Earth's Electric Field To Fly

These two aspects are exactly what spiders benefit from. When a spider is sitting on something negatively charged, it spews a silk thread which is also negative in nature. The repulsion between the sitting surface and the thread causes the spider to get enough force to take flight. This process of the spider floating or moving through the air is called ballooning, and the concept of the spider using the repulsive force to gain motion is called flight by electrostatic repulsion. This repulsion is how ballooning spiders hop from surface to surface, and sometimes can go upto two miles in the air, which is practically flying.

How was the mystery of ballooning spiders solved?

Erica Morley and Daniel Robert from the University of Bristol had been working on this research since 2013, and concluded it in 2018. The duo wanted to solve the mystery of ballooning spiders. For the experiment, Morlay and Robert placed spiders on vertical strips of cardboard in the middle of plastic boxes.  When the arachnids had settled down, the duo started generating an electric field between the floor and the ceiling of the boxes. The force or strength of this field was similar to the outside world, the one spiders are most likely to experience on any given day. They noticed that the little sensory hairs on the spider’s legs grew alert. This proves that spiders could, in fact, sense the electric field. 

Some spiders got ready for ballooning – they stood on the ends of their legs and raised their abdomens. Some expert spiders even managed to take a flight, even though there was no airflow within the boxes. This proved that spiders were harnessing the electric field around them for ballooning, and that airflow wasn’t completely necessary. One more interesting thing that happened during this experiment was that the poor spiders dropped when the electric field in the controlled environment stopped.  

There. The ghost of Darwin was finally satisfied, the mystery of ballooning spiders had been solved. Even though there may be other factors that help spiders travel, we now know that they’re almost supernatural. Can you imagine harnessing the electric field at your pleasure?

It’s go time. 

Also read about how ants are capturing other ants and turning them into slaves.


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