Cartwheels In The Sand: Amazing Movements Of The Flic-Flac Spider

Lawrence LeBlond for – Your Universe Online

In the human world, cartwheeling is a fun activity for many children and is a popular routine for Olympic gymnasts. It’s unlikely, however, that you would see a person using the cartwheel technique to escape danger.

But in the natural world, one species of animal has been found to use cartwheels as an escape mechanism in its desert environment. The animal is a new species of spider called Cebrennus rechenbergi, or the flic-flac spider.

Discovered by Prof. Dr. Ingo Rechenberg, a bionics expert at the Technical University of Berlin, during a 2009 expedition in Morocco, the spider has been recently described by Dr. Peter Jäger, a spider expert at the Senckenberg Research Institute in Frankfurt, Germany. Jäger honored Rechenberg by naming the species after him. Its common name, “flic-flac,” is the scientific terminology for a cartwheel. Publishing the findings in the journal Zootaxa, Jäger maintains that this is the only known spider that can move by means of flic-flac jumps.

Prof. Dr. Rechenberg was so inspired by the creature’s surprising mode of locomotion that he developed a 10-inch-long spider robot capable of similar moves. This robot, called the Tabbot, from the Berber word for spider “Tabacha,” moves by walking or by performing somersaults.

“This robot may be employed in agriculture, on the ocean floor or even on Mars,” said Prof. Dr. Rechenberg.

As for the spider the robot was inspired by, the flic-flacking maneuver is capable of doubling the spider’s speed to 6.6 feet per second from 3.3. However, the move uses so much energy, it is only used as a last resort to escape predation.

“I can’t see any other reason,” Dr. Jäger told the NY Times, adding: “It is a costly move. If it performs this five to 10 times within one day, then it dies.”

When Prof. Dr. Rechenberg first discovered the spider five years ago, he didn’t witness the flic-flac jumps initially. Only after he returned to camp with the specimen did the spider show off its astonishing moves.

Prof. Dr. Rechenberg, who is 80, travels to the Moroccan desert annually to study species and develop robotic models based on the behavior of the animals he finds. His Tabbot robot, highlighted in a new video, mimics the escapism behavior he first observed in the flic-flac spider in 2009.

Prof. Dr. Rechenberg said robots struggle when moving over loose sand and by studying the locomotion of the flic-flac spider, he was able to develop a robot that travels across the sand easily. He said the moves of this species could help solve the problem in an efficient way.

“I do my work in the desert where there is not much energy available,” he told NY Times. “That’s the reason I have gone every year for more than 30 years — to find out what the animals do to save energy.”

Surprisingly, despite regular visits to the desert for more than 30 years by Prof. Dr. Rechenberg, the spider escaped discovery until 2009. “Some secrets of nature are hidden although they are really close to us,” noted Dr. Jäger.

The flic-flac spider lives in the sand desert Erg Chebbi in southeastern Morocco near the border of Algeria. Like a gymnast, the spider propels itself off the ground, followed by a series of rapid flic-flac movements of its legs. This technique gives the spider great flexibility – uphill, downhill or across level ground – moving around with ease. However, due to the high amount of energy consumed while using this technique, the behavior is only used when provoked by a predator. In its natural habitat, these predators may be either the camel spider or the scorpion; humans also seem to provoke a response.

The spider’s moves are surprising enough, but its architectural feats are just as mysterious. Using specialized feelers and elongated bristles, the flic-flac builds a tube-like structure in the sand, attached by silk threads, which protects the spider from the sun and predators.

When Dr. Jäger first examined the spider, he nearly mistook it for the closely related species Cebrennus villosus from Tunisia. However, closer examination of the sex organs determined that Prof. Dr. Rechenberg’s discovery constitutes a new species.

“However, the unique mode of locomotion also serves as a criterion to distinguish the species,” Dr. Jäger said in a statement.

While this is truly the first species of spider known to flic-flac, another arachnid, the golden rolling spider, exhibits a similar flipping behavior. However, this trait only aids the spider in moving downhill with the aid of gravity. Other creatures have also been discovered that can perform flic-flacking maneuvers. According to the Scientific American, these include the larvae of the southeastern beach tiger beetle, the American mantis shrimp, and caterpillars of the moth species Pleurotya ruralis and Cacoecimorpha pronubana.

Image Below: The Tabbot spider robot (left) developed by Prof. Dr. Ingo Rechenberg and the tube-like structure (right) of the flic-flac spider. Credit: Prof. Dr. Ingo Rechenberg