Ballooning: How Spiders Fly

Bon Voyage
Bon Voyage—Young spiders ballooning in the Santa Cruz Mountains of the San Francisco Peninsula, Credit:: Little Grove Farms

One of the best pilots in nature has no wings!

From birds and bats to insects that fly, wings are the most common organs of flight. However, their eight-legged neighbours prefer using webs to wings. Spiders use silk to hunt and nest. However, young spiders spin webs that help them to fly, even across seas and oceans. This method of flight is called ballooning.

Like a kite, the spider needs to catch a breeze to balloon. Next, the spider faces into the direction of the breeze and lifts its abdomen. At this point, it stands on the tips of its legs. The spider releases silk from the end of its abdomen. As the length of this silk strand increases and gets ample ‘push’ from the wind, the spider loosens its hold, and the wind carries the spider adrift. Large-scale ballooning events have been historically mistaken for chemical weapons. This is because, in such large-scale events, silk strands from a large number of spiders get entangled to form a large mass.

While take-off seems smooth, landing is more luck than skill. Of all the spiders that balloon, only a few manage to land in favourable environments. Even so, these silk strands can surely put Aladdin’s flying carpet to shame.


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