‘Spider-sensing’ an adventure for air pollution

Environmental, Neuse River Watershed

Posted on September 14th, 2023

Neuse Riverkeeper Samantha Krop prepares to exit her kayak with her pup, Charley, to search for spider webs.

Neuse Riverkeeper Samantha Krop went hunting for spiders on the Neuse last Saturday.

Sam teamed up with Sound Rivers’ partners North Carolina Environmental Justice Network, Down East Coal Ash Environmental and Social Justice Coalition and Alan Capps to comb the banks of the river, gathering spider webs along the Neuse at Goldsboro.

Emerging research says spider webs may be able to track air pollution in a given location.

“It’s totally innovative, and the coolest thing I’ve maybe ever done,” Sam said.

Spider webs obviously capture prey, but they can also capture airborne particles, including heavy metals responsible for air pollution.

Six web-collectors, including Sam, worked by kayak on a grid through part of the Neuse River that’s inaccessible by car. The location was chosen based on its proximity to Duke Energy’s H.F. Lee coal-processing plant on the Neuse in Goldsboro.

“We separated out the grid and would get off on the bank to look for webs,” Sam said.

They weren’t just looking for any webs — they were seeking funnel weaver webs, which have a wide, horizontal mouth that narrows into a funnel where the spider hangs out waiting for prey.

An example of a funnel weaver spider web.

“If you collect the top of their web, they rebuild the web in the same place,” Sam said.

This allows researchers to collect webs multiple times, weeks apart, from a single location. Analysis of heavy metals trapped in the spider silk over time can point to an ongoing source of air pollution.

Led by Chris Hawn, NCEJN’s co-director of research and education, the group pinned and identified the exact locations of the webs collected. Sam said the process was relatively simple: blow on the web until the spider scurries into the deepest part of the web — the funnel — and then collect the upper part of the web.

“It was pretty awesome,” she laughed.

(Many thanks to Alan Capps, owner of Down East Kayak Adventures for providing the kayaks for the trip!)

A volunteer with North Carolina Environmental Justice Network combs the banks of the Neuse looking for funnel weaver spider webs.

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