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Authors:  Leslie Brunetta and Catherine L. Craig

Spider Silk book coverIt may be the most amazing protein in the history of life on Earth.  Gradually modified over the past 400 million years, spider silk is renowned for its remarkable strength, its light weight and its incredible versatility.  It’s also completely recyclable.  Over the millennia, this unique biological tool has allowed spiders to achieve astonishing diversity, filling countless ecological niches across the globe.  In Spider Silk, journalist Leslie Brunetta and arachnologist Catherine L. Craig tell the story of this amazing substance.

Spider and web photo

Eriophora transmarina, an Australian garden orb weaver, shows off her skills.

Secreted from special glands located in the abdomen, spider silk was initially used as a simple liner for burrows and as protective padding for egg cases, allowing spiders to be some of the first predators to colonize the land.   Eventually, spider silk would be called on for multiple tasks, from safety harness to high altitude balloon to lethally effective insect trap.  Presenting numerous tales of awe-inspiring adaptability, the authors share their passion for these fascinating creatures.  From the amazing hunting strategies of the jumping spiders to the remarkable ingenuity of the orb and cobweb weavers, the 45,000 known species of spiders each have their own unique story to tell.  Reveling in the seemingly endless parade of arachnid creativity, the authors enthusiastically share some of their favorites.

Funnel web spider photo

A funnel web spider guards the front door.

Because spider silk is a protein, its blueprint is directly coded in a spider’s DNA, making it a uniquely accessible model for evolutionary biology.  Brunetta and Craig share how deciphering the changes in silk gene DNA has allowed scientists to envision the full extent of spider evolution over time.  Each new advance in silk technology – from strength to stickiness – has opened a new door to evolutionary opportunity.  The authors use spider evolution to effectively illuminate many of the finer points of modern evolutionary biology, from Darwinism to evo devo.

While everyone’s first instinctual reaction when encountering a lowly spider may be a strong case of the heebie-jeebies, it really is worth it to thoughtfully consider the incredible success story of these remarkable predators.  They’ve been skillfully weaving their ingenious webs since the dawn of time, endlessly perfecting their art over the millennia.  Spider Silk is a consistently entertaining and eye-opening look at how it all happened.   Recommended for any and all biology enthusiasts.

— D. Driftless

Orb photo by Adam Inglis (CC BY-SA 3.0), funnel photo by Patrick Edwin Moran (CC BY 2.0)

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