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The Real Reason They Gave Drugs to Spiders

You’ve no doubt seen pictures of webs built by spiders that were given various drugs. We reported on it years ago, and even posted a wonderful video of the spiders in action. But who came up with the idea of giving drugs to spiders in the first place?

In 1948, a zookeeper wanted to observe spiders building webs, so he asked a druggist to give them something to make them build webs during the daylight hours. The idea didn’t work, but it opened the door to a different project. Pharmacologist Dr. Peter N. Witt was intrigued by the idea that spiders would built a different kind of web due to the drugs they ingested. Could this gimmick be made into a drug test? Or even a diagnostic tool?

It appears Witt imagined a world where all police departments and hospitals have a sort of spider lab. When a patient or inmate behaved strangely, that person's blood would be fed to a spider, which would then be left overnight to build a web. In the morning, a careful look at the spider's handiwork would provide answers. "Aha! My webs indicate this inmate over here is a laudanum addict, and this poor patient is suffering from schizoaffective disorder," a chin-scratching lab technician might have said.

"It obviously didn't work that well," Rayor told me. "That wasn't necessarily the end-all-and-be-all in terms of analyzing what kinds of drugs people had taken." Eventually technologies like mass spectrometry made Witt's spidergraph (my word, not his) unnecessary.

What did they learn? That spiders don't like drinking the urine of schizophrenics. Entomologists were not involved in the project, and they have a different view of the experiment. For one thing, spiders don’t react to drugs the same way humans do, and the way they spin their webs depends of a lot of different things, which you can read about at Vice. -via Metafilter

(Image credit: NASA)


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