This is an article from Curious Kids, a new series for children. The Conversation is asking kids to send in questions they’d like an expert to answer. All questions are welcome – serious, weird or wacky!
If a huge huntsman spider is sucked into a vacuum cleaner, can it crawl out later? I really, really need to know. – Lucy, age 8, Ivanhoe.
Editor’s note: for such an important question, we consulted two experts – a vacuum cleaner design expert and a spider expert.
Simon Lockrey, industrial design research fellow and former vacuum cleaner design engineer: It certainly could, depending on the vacuum cleaner.
If there is a clear way out, the huntsman could make its escape when the vacuum is turned off. That’s assuming the spider survived being sucked up, that there were surfaces it could stick to, and there were gaps big enough to squeeze through.
However, sometimes escape is not possible. This is because some vacuum cleaners have internal “doors” that only open on the way in, and not the way out. Think of a trap door that only opens one way! We had those in some of the vacuums I helped to design.
Not all vacuums have this feature. It is mainly for machines that have short openings and get tipped up a lot, such as hand-held vacuums. So without that one-way door, a spider may have a chance to escape.
But the big question is whether a spider would even survive being sucked into a vacuum cleaner at all. Put it this way: when a spider enters a high-speed cyclonic machine, it may be travelling super quick. Speeds vary depending on the model. However, there are new digital motors that can rotate five times quicker than a Formula 1 engine – that’s 120,000 revolutions per minute!
Probably a spider’s best bet would be to lay low until the vacuum cleaner is emptied, and then make a getaway from the bin it is emptied into.
Maggie Hardy, spider expert: When a spider is sucked up by a vacuum cleaner, it first needs to avoid being killed by the low pressure that sucks air and dirt into the vacuum. And second, the spider will have to heal from any damage (scratches, or even lost legs) caused by travelling through the brushes, hoses and chambers inside the vacuum cleaner.
We know spiders can survive in low pressure (like you find in a vacuum) and in low gravity, thanks to some research carried out in space by NASA.
The very first spiders in space were sent for an experiment designed by an American high school student named Judith Miles, in 1973. She wanted to find out how the “spidernauts” would respond to weightlessness in low gravity, because spiders on Earth use both wind and gravity to properly construct their webs. Two more spidernaut experiments were conducted on the International Space Station in 2008 and 2009, and you can compare the results you get on Earth with what the astronauts found in space.
The most recent study, in 2011, found that with some practice spidernauts build webs that are very similar to the ones spiders build on Earth.
Spiders have an exoskeleton (their skeleton is on the outside of their body). Spider movement depends on them being able to inflate and deflate their legs, so if they lose a leg sometimes there isn’t enough pressure for them to move their legs. If a spider loses one or more of its legs it will usually regrow them in the next moult (the next time they shed their exoskeleton).
Spiders are a delightful and important part of the natural world, and if they are in your house they are generally lost.
You can build your own spider hospital, in case you do find an injured spider in or around your home. Of course, first you should check with an adult or an expert to make sure the spider isn’t dangerous, and never pick up a spider with your hands – have an adult use a large piece of cardboard, or a plastic container.
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Authors: Simon Lockrey, Research Fellow, RMIT University