The newly discovered Moroccan flic-flac spider, which can cartwheel away from danger like predators, was the inspiration for bionics expert Dr. Ingo Rechenberg to create a new energy-saving miniature spider robot which might one day be used on the surface of Mars. Dr. Ingo Rechenberg, of the Technical University of Berlin, discovered the flic-flac, or Cebrennus rechenbergi, spider in 2009. The acrobatic arachnid subsequently became named after him.
The Moroccan flic-flac spider, which is related to the golden wheel spider, is able to double its speed when it cartwheels away, but the huge expenditure of energy the spider needs comes with a life-threatening risk — if the Cebrennus rechenbergi performs the cartwheels five to 10 times in a day, the spider will often die. Doing cartwheels allows the spider to amp its speed from 3.3 feet per second to 6.6 feet per second.
Taxonomist Peter Jäger, of the Senckenberg Research Institute and Natural History Museum in Frankfurt, Germany, has been credited with nicknaming the spider the “flic-flac” spider, or cartwheeling spider. Jager is the person who positively identified the spider as being a new species. The flic-flac (cartwheeling) spider is described in a study published in the Zootaxa journal, which you can read in its entirety by clicking the last link below.
Though the Cebrennus rechenbergi spider is the only known arachnid which can perform cartwheels, it’s not the only animal which can do this acrobatic defensive maneuver. Some species of moth caterpillars, the American mantis shrimp, and the larvae of the southeastern beach tiger beetle also do cartwheels.
The flic-flac spider can perform cartwheels not only headed downhill, but also on flat ground or headed uphill. To perform cartwheels, the spider runs as quickly as it can, then uses a throwing sort of motion with its front legs and flips into the air, ending the maneuver by bringing its feet back upon the ground ahead of it, and then it keeps on repeating this series of movements until it’s satisfied it has escaped from whatever is pursuing it.
The Cebrennus rechenbergi spider is nocturnal, living in tubes it creates woven out of silk hidden below the sand in the day. The silk tubes also have lids. Then, the flic-flac spiders come out to hunt at night. Dr. Rechenberg discovered the gymnastic spider in southeastern Morocco in the sand desert of Erg Chebbi.
Why did Dr. Rechenberg build a spider robot?
Dr. Rechenberg has studied the movements of the desert creatures of Morocco every year for more than thirty years, studying “what the animals do to save energy,” and then he builds robots based on their behavior and movements. He has based one of his latest robots on the cartwheeling movements of the flic-flac spider, a miniature spider robot that can maneuver over loose sand with ease.
The spider robot that Dr. Rechenberg designed is ten inches in size, and it performs cartwheels just like the flic-flac spider.Dr. Rechenberg has named his spider robot Tabbot, because it’s similar to the word for “spider” in the Berber language, “Tabacha.”
According to Dr. Rechenberg, the miniature spider robot he’s developed potentially has a variety of uses, possibly “in agriculture, on the ocean floor or even on Mars.” When Dr. Rechenberg first saw the flic-flac spider and observed is movements, he got so emotional that he cried, according to a report in the New York Times. While a spider cartwheeling in your direction might elicit a different response in most people, such as running away in fear, Dr. Rechenberg was able to see the beauty of the mechanics and ease of movement of the flic-flac spider. The cartwheeling spider robot he invented, Tabbot, based on the Flic-flac spider, may one day soon be used in a wide multitude of applications.
Written by: Douglas Cobb