How Tiny, Yet Über-Efficient Spider Brains Can Improve Computer Technology

Photo by Srikaanth Sekar (CC BY-SA 2.0)

In Scientific American, Erik Vance reports on how the orb weaver spider — a creature that weighs between .005 milligrams and three grams — has a brain that is just as adept at complex tasks as exponentially larger spiders. This “brain miniaturization” “may hold clues to innovative design strategies that engineers might incorporate in future generations of computers.”

The world’s smallest arachnid, the Samoan moss spider, is at a third of a millimeter nearly invisible to the human eye. The largest spider in the world is the goliath birdeater tarantula, which weighs 5 ounces and is about the size of a dinner plate. For reference, that is about the same difference in scale between that same tarantula and a bottlenose dolphin.

And yet the bigger spider does not act in more complex ways than its tiny counterpart. “Insects and spiders and the like—in terms of absolute size—have among the tiniest brains we’ve come across,” says William Wcislo, a scientist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama City. “But their behavior, as far as we can see, is as sophisticated as things that have relatively large brains. So then there’s the question: How do they do that?”

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