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Trap-Jaw Spider Family Seizes Prey with Lightning Speed

A new study on predatory spider strikes finds a tiny arachnid biting with record-setting swiftness.

A family of trap-jaw spiders can snap its jaws down on prey with unprecedented, lightning speed, and with unexpected force, according to a new study on predatory spider strikes.

Under study was the Mecysmaucheniidae family of spiders, tiny (about 1 to 3 millimeters long) and unexceptional arachnids found only in New Zealand and South America that hunt on the ground for their prey. Drab though they may be, though, their bite is anything but unexceptional.

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Hannah Wood, of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History, led the study, the results of which have just been published in the journal Current Biology.

Wood had observed in prior work that trap-jaw spiders would stalk their prey with their jaws wide open and then, once the prey was close enough, snap them shut fast, with the pitiless ferocity of a mouse trap.

Determined to get a closer look, Wood made a group of high-speed video recordings of 14 species in the Mecysmaucheniidae family. Some species, she noted, snapped their jaws shut so fast only video shot at a staggering 44,000 frames per second could slow it down enough for the action to be closely observed.

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The speed of the jaw-snapping varied among the species, Wood found, with the fastest bite being 100 times faster than the slowest. How fast? Just over a 10th of a millisecond in one species.

"These are the fastest-known arachnids so far," Wood told Smithsonian.com.

Here's a video of that speed in action. It shows the species Semysmauchenius, in footage recorded at 3,000 frames per second (fps). But, it's playing at 20 fps, so in real life the movements would be 150 times as fast:

click to play video

And, it wasn't just speed at play in the quick-jawed arachnids. Wood and her colleagues determined that four of the species output more power than their own tiny muscles should have permitted them to.

This told the researchers that other structural mechanisms must allow the spiders to store energy they can expend when they need to make their blindingly fast strikes.

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The biological ability to store energy like that is called power amplification. Wood and her co-authors remark in the study that this type of predatory behavior - the "power-amplified" snap-shut seen in the spiders - has been documented before in some ant species but never before in arachnids.

The researchers say they aren't sure yet what mechanism accounts for the energy storage that drives the spider's power-amplified behavior. They're currently studying the issue.

"This research shows how little we know about spiders and how much there is still to discover," said Wood in a statement. "The high-speed predatory attacks of these spiders were previously unknown."

This image shows the spider

Insects and other creepy crawlies may be tiny, but their lineages are mighty, finds a new study that determined the common ancestor of mites and insects existed about 570 million years ago. The study, published in the latest issue of the journal Science, presents an evolutionary timeline that settles many longstanding uncertainties about insects and related species. It found that true insects first emerged about 479 million years ago, long before dinosaurs first walked the Earth. Co-author Karl Kjer, a Rutgers entomologist, explained that mites are arthropods, a group that's distantly related to insects. Spiders and crustaceans are also arthropods.

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Spiders such as the huntsman spider can, like mites, trace their lineages back to about 570 million years ago, according to the new study. The researchers believe that the common ancestor of mites, spiders and insects was a water-dweller.

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Millipedes, such as the one shown here, as well as centipedes are known as myriapods. The most recent common ancestor of myriapods and crustaceans lived about 550 million years ago. Again, this "mother of many bugs" would have been a marine dweller. Kjer explained, "You can't really expect anything to live on land without plants, and plants and insects colonized land at about the same time, around 480 million years ago. So any date before that is a sea creature." Moving forward in time, the most common ancestor of millipedes and centipedes existed a little over 400 million years ago. The leggy body plan has proven to be extremely successful.

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"This is an early insect that evolved before insects had wings," Kjer said. Its ancestry goes back about 420 million years. The common ancestor of silverfish living today first emerged about 250 million years ago. Dinosaurs and the earliest mammals likely would have then seen silverfish very similar to the ones that are alive now.

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Dragonflies and damselflies have family histories that go back about 406 million years. Kjer said that such insects looked differently then, however. "For example," he said, "they had visible antennae." Their distant ancestors were among the first animals on earth to fly.

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"Parasitic lice are interesting, because they probably needed either feathers or fur," Kjer said. As a result, they are the relative newbies to this list. Nonetheless, the researchers believe it is possible that ancestors of today's lice were around 120 million years ago, possibly living off of dinosaurs and other creatures then.

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Crickets, katydids and grasshoppers had a common ancestor that lived just over 200 million years ago, and a stem lineage that goes back even further to 248 million years ago. A trivia question might be: Which came first, these insects or grass? The insects predate the grass that they now often thrive in.

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Dinosaur Era fossils sometimes include what researchers call "roachoids," or wing impressions that were made by ancestors to today's roaches, mantids (like the praying mantis) and termites. "Some cockroaches are actually more closely related to termites than they are to other cockroaches," Kjer said, explaining that this makes tracing back their lineages somewhat confusing. He and his colleagues determined that the stem lineage goes back about 230 million years, while the earliest actual cockroach first emerged around 170 million years ago.

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Termites and cockroaches have a tightly interwoven family history. Termites similar to the ones we know today were around 138 million years ago. Now we often think of termites as pests, but they are good eats for many different animals, which back in the day would have included our primate ancestors.

Flies like houseflies that often buzz around homes belong to the order Diptera, which has a family tree that goes back 243 million years ago. The most recent common ancestor for modern flies lived about 158 million years ago, according to the study. There is little doubt that the earliest humans, and their primate predecessors, had to contend with pesky flies and all of the other insects mentioned on this list. All of these organisms are extremely hardy. The researchers determined that, in the history of our planet, there has only been one mass extinction event that had much impact on insects. It occurred 252 million years ago (the Permian mass extinction), and even it set the stage for the emergence of flies, cockroaches, termites and numerous other creepy crawlies.

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