Now, these aerial excursions have been empirically determined to be largely powered by electricity, according to new research published Thursday in Current Biology. Led by Erica Morley, a sensory biophysicist at the University of Bristol, the study settles a longstanding debate about whether wind energy or electrostatic forces are responsible for spider ballooning locomotion.
“Dispersal is a crucial part of ecology and ballooning is one mode of dispersal,” Morley told me in an email. “If we can better understand how this works and the mechanisms behind it we can better understand the dispersal patterns of spiders and other ballooning animals.”
In the last decade, doubts about the wind power explanation for arachnid flight have mounted alongside observations of spiders ballooning when winds are not strong enough to lift them even a few feet, let alone for thousands of miles. The animals can also reach high altitudes—sometimes five kilometers (three miles) above Earth’s surface—which would be difficult to accomplish with thermal air currents alone.
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