What is Ballooning in Spiders?

Instructor: Sujata Archer
In this lesson you will learn how spiders that are invertebrates learn to move to a different location through a process called ballooning, a means of transportation that uses a strand of silk.

Spiders Flying

The children's novel Charlotte's Web, by E.B. White, has a beautiful ending when Wilbur the pig notices a baby spider. ''The spider stood on its head, pointed its spinnerets in the air, and let loose a cloud of fine silk. The silk formed a balloon. As Wilbur watched, the spider let go of the fence and rose into the air. … 'Wait a minute!' screamed Wilbur. 'Where do you think you're going?' But the spider was already out of sight.''

What did this spider just do?

Ballooning

Ballooning is also called kiting. It is a method of aerial locomotion used by spiderlings, or newly hatched spiders. It is a method used to scatter by hitching a ride on their silk, allowing the breeze to carry them.

Ballooning Spiderlings Using Gossamer
Gossamer and Spiderlings Ballooning

Why Do Spiders Balloon?

A spider's egg mass can hold hundreds of eggs. When the eggs hatch, the spiderlings are hungry and packed in a tight spot. Competition for food often leads to cannibalism. Hunger and safety force the spiderlings to get out and fly! The spiderlings use ballooning to get out into a new world.

Plants and animals will usually move away from the parent plant or parent animals when it's imperative to survival. This allows the animals or plants to go to new habitats. For spiderlings, ballooning is important for dispersal biogeography, or the distribution of a species over a wide range, which allows them to reproduce in new habitats, away from their parents.

How Do Spiders Balloon?

Spiders have no wings. However, they can fly as high as some birds and insects. Ballooning spiders have even splattered on airplane windshields while they were flying! Even Charles Darwin, during his famous voyage on the HMS Beagle, reported seeing spiders parachuting onto the deck of the ship.

When the spiderling is ready to start ballooning, it stands on its head and points its spinnerets in the air. The number of spinnerets can vary from two to six. Spinnerets are attached to the spiderling's abdomen. The tip of the spinneret is called the spinning field. There are hundreds of spinning tubes in each spinning field. Liquid silk comes out of the spinning tubes. The spinnerets weave the silk into threads. Wilbur watched in awe as Charlotte's babies used their spinnerets to balloon away from the barn where they were born.

There are three phases in ballooning:

  • First, a high point, like tip of a grass blade or fence, has to be reached for takeoff.
  • Second, body posture has to be correct; this is called tiptoe behavior.
  • Third, the spiderling rises into the air as the gossamer strand floats away.

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