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Found: The Fastest-Spinning Animal in the World

Flattie spiders can do the equivalent of a triple axel in the blink of an eye.

Blink and you'll miss it.
Blink and you’ll miss it. Yu Zeng

Watching figure skaters gracefully spin across the ice or through the air is one of the highlights of Winter Olympics. And part of the secret behind Adam Rippon’s elegance and Mirai Nagasu’s triple axel lies in torque and rotational inertia.

But figure skaters are not the only creatures to master these techniques. New research reveals that spiders from the Selenopidae family, commonly known as wall crab or flattie spiders, harness the same physical properties to whip around on prey—at a rotational speed of up to 3,000 degrees per second, which makes them the fastest-spinning terrestrial animal on the planet.

The discovery was made after Yu Zeng, a biomechanicist and evolutionary biologist at the University of California, Merced, and Sarah Crews, an entomologist at the California Academy of Sciences, captured footage of flatties whirling around to seize crickets with high-speed video cameras. When they watched the videos in slow motion they were able to document the phases of their hunting technique.

Flattie Spider Strike Maneuver (© Dr. Sarah Crews and Dr. Yu Zeng) from Atlas Obscura on Vimeo.

Once a flattie detects prey behind it by sensing changes in air currents, it takes it just one-eighth of a second to strike. As described in a paper published today in the Journal of Experimental Biology, the secret lies in how they use their thin, elongated legs.

“We found that the leg nearest the prey anchors to the ground, creating a leverage point from which the spider can pull in its torso closer to the prey,” Zeng explained in a statement. The spider pushes off with its legs, creating torque. Then, much like figure skaters, who take advantage of rotational inertia when they draw their arms in for a faster spin, the flattie spider pulls its remaining legs off the ground and close to their body, ratcheting up their speed by up to 40 percent. The result is the equivalent of three full spins in the time it just took you to blink your eyes.

Researchers expect their work to inform the design of multi-legged robots and other machines that need to operate in confined spaces. “By simply observing these spiders and their natural history, we were able to make new discoveries across disciplines,” Crews added. “You just never know what path science may lead you down next—some of the best discoveries are made by accident.”