Spiders on Drugs: Unravelling Addictive Behaviour

Written By Iain Robertson

You’ve heard of the Nobel Prize, but have you heard of the Ig(noble) Prize? Just as prestigious in the scientific community, an Ig Nobel Prize is awarded to the most trivial or unusual scientific research achievements. One winner from 2009 designed a bra that, in an emergency, can convert into two protective face masks (unsurprisingly, this design is currently experiencing a revival). Another winner, this one from last year, made an astounding discovery: dead magnetized cockroaches behave differently from live magnetized cockroaches. One bit of research that we think should be worthy of an Ig Nobel Prize is “Spiders on Drugs” (no, it’s not a David Bowie album title).

In the late 1940s, a Swiss scientist, Dr. Peter Witt, grew increasingly tired of his lab partner complaining about spiders not cooperating in his experiments on their web-building abilities. Witt helped the only way he knew how—by drugging the spiders. Eventually, drugging spiders became the entire focus of his research.

Read more: The Wrap Around Spider and the Man Who Discovered It

He tried marijuana, cocaine, sleeping pills, magic mushrooms, and a host of other mind-altering substances. None worked but gave useful insight into how frying a spider’s tiny brain affected its ability to spin a web. As expected, low doses affected the spider’s construction skills. But larger doses blew their web-building abilities out of the water.

Circles became spirals; beautiful, even threads became an unkempt rope; and acid annihilated the sense of direction of spiders on drugs. Webs created by spiders high on acid couldn’t catch a fly, and even if they could, the spaced-out arachnids couldn’t find their way to them.

Comparing the web building abilities of an undrugged spider with one given a dosage of caffeine shows a marked difference. (Image: Wikimedia/Astronaut)
Comparing the web building abilities of an undrugged spider with one given a dosage of caffeine shows a marked difference. (Image: Wikimedia/Astronaut)

As Witt reported, “When a spider’s central nervous system is drugged, the insect faltered as a man intoxicated by alcohol weaves an erratic course down the street.”

Read more: Giant Sea Spiders breathe through their Legs!

Probably because of a lack of interest and practical applications, his research petered out, and it was mostly forgotten by the late 1970s. However, the legions of zoned-out spiders returned when, of all parties, NASA resumed Witt’s research in the 1990s. Why NASA took an interest in spiders on drugs is not known, as an immediate application of this research to the space race is a bit difficult to work out.

Using modern technology for a more in-depth analysis, NASA produced a report in 1995 that replicated Witt’s work and produced similar results.

If spiders on drugs are not just to qualify for an Ig Nobel Prize, what use is the research?

Among its findings, NASA found that spiders who overdosed on caffeine made the worst webs. They had about as much chance of catching flies as a llama has of winning the Kentucky Derby. In short, caffeine is one powerful psychoactive drug.

Read more: Theraphosa blondi: The Bird Eating Spider

The research on spiders on drugs continues. Scientists are interested in finding out how chemicals affect the spider’s brain and behavior, particularly since the spider’s actions don’t seem to be a learned behavior, but an alteration in brain chemistry. If we can work it out, we may be much closer to understanding addiction and addictive behavior.