Cartwheeling Spider Found, Inspires New Robot

Forget fight or flight—a new species of spider discovered in Morocco flips its way out of danger.

Called the flic-flac spider after its signature back handspring move, Cebrennus rechenbergi can easily somersault along the sand dunes of the country’s Erg Chebbi region (map).

The flic-flac spider (Cebrennus rechenbergi) in action. Photograph by Ingo Rechenberg

Its gymnastics aren’t the only thing that makes it special: The flic-flac spider also makes structures out of silk to keep itself cool in the scorching desert, according to the new study, published on April 17 in the journal Zootaxa. 

Ingo Rechenberg, a scientist at the Technical University of Berlin, in Germany, who had ventured into the North African desert on an unrelated expedition, first saw the spider doing backflips and suspected it was a new species. (Also see “How Do Spiders Walk Upside Down? Mystery Solved.”)

“As soon as he discovered the spider, he came directly to my lab, still covered in sand and dust,” said study author Peter Jäger, a spider expert at the Senckenberg Research Institute in Frankfurt, Germany.

Watch a video of the cartwheeling spider.

Instantly intrigued, Jäger identified the spider as belonging to the group of huntsman spiders, so named for their prowess in catching prey. Although C. rechenbergi has been found only in the Erg Chebbi, other Cebrennus spiders can be found in deserts around the Mediterranean basin.

What’s more, C. rechenbergi seems to run circles around its kin in terms of athleticism: For instance, a related species called the golden wheel spider can only cartwheel down dunes, while the newfound arachnid can move up them, too.

“It’s a biological wonder,” Jäger said.

Spider-Inspired Robot

The new spider’s gymnastics are triggered when the spider feels threatened, said Jäger, who based those conclusions on lab experiments with captive spiders and field observations by Rechenberg. (See National Geographic’s spider videos.)

“I basically sat on the floor and did everything I could to try and trigger this behavior” in the spiders, Jäger said. “I managed to do it only twice, but in the desert, Rechenberg got it to flic-flac nearly every time.”

Other observations by the pair reveal that the spider rears up on its back legs to try to scare off potential predators, such as snakes, and flings itself at the predator to try to startle it.

Inspired by the flic-flac spider’s “ingenious mode of locomotion,” Rechenberg has developed a small model of a spider robot. (Read about more nature-inspired robots.)

A photo of a robot modeled after a spider.
A model of the spider robot Tabbot, which is 25 centimeters long. Photograph by Ingo Rechenberg

Named Tabbot—a variation of tabacha, the word for spider in the local Berber language—the robot can move by walking and somersaulting.

“This robot may be employed in agriculture, on the ocean floor, or even on Mars,” Rechenberg said in a statement.

“Quite a Discovery”

The newfound spider is “quite a discovery,” said Jordi Moya-Laraño, a spider expert at the Spanish National Research Council, in Madrid, who wasn’t involved in the new research.

Jäger’s study “is very comprehensive and helps us understand the diversification and mode of living in desert spiders,” Moya-Laraño said. (See pictures of spiders up close.)

Overall, the acrobatic spider has flipped its way into the public spotlight, Jäger said.

“I love when the public gets excited by a spider,” he said. “That doesn’t happen very often.”

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Changing Planet

Carrie is a freelance science writer living in Virginia. When she's not writing about cool critters, she's spending time outside, drinking coffee, or knitting. You can visit her website at http://www.carriearnold.com