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Diving spiders make their own gills

In Germany’s Eider River, spiders not only swim with the fishes, they kind of breathe like them, too.

Eurasian diving bell spiders (Argyroneta aquatica) survive entirely underwater by living in large air bubbles, which the crawlers trap in silken webs. A new study shows that these bubbles work like a “physical gill,” drawing oxygen in from the water to match much of the spider’s consumption. Researchers from Australia and Germany report their findings in the July Journal of Experimental Biology.

For insects, physical gills are nothing new. Certain small bugs bob and dive into streams and rivers with the help of plastrons, trapped films of air that coat their bodies. As the bugs consume this trapped oxygen, gas diffuses in from the surrounding water, replenishing the supply, says Morris Flynn, a mechanical engineer at the University of Alberta in Canada. In contrast, diving bell spiders seem to actively replenish their air bubble – called a diving bell after the antique submarines – by frequently traveling to the surface to grab more oxygen. They trap the air between their back legs and abdomens, later adding it to the bell. This keeps the diving bell from collapsing.

But scientists didn’t know if the diving bell spiders’ diving bells, which the crawlers can leave behind while they go grab food or find a mate, were anything but scuba tanks, holding a one-time supply of air.

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