Composites, both natural and synthetic, achieve novel functionality by combining two or more constituent materials. For example, the earliest adhesive silk in spider webs – cribellate silk – is composed of stiff axial fibers and coiled fibers surrounded by hundreds of sticky cribellate nanofibrils. Yet little is known of how fiber types interact to enable capture of insect prey with cribellate silk. To understand the roles of each constituent fiber during prey capture, we compared the tensile performance of native-state and manipulated threads produced by Psechrus clavis, and the adhesion of native threads along a smooth surface and hairy bee thorax. We found that the coiled fiber increases the work to fracture of the entire cribellate thread by up to 20-fold. We also found that the axial fiber breaks multiple times during deformation, an unexpected observation that indicates: i) the axial fiber continues to contribute work even after breakage, ii) the cribellate nanofibrils may perform a previously unidentified role as a binder material that distributes forces throughout the thread. Work of adhesion increased on surfaces with more surface structures (hairy bee thorax) corresponding to increased deformation of the coiled fiber. Together, our observations highlight how the synergistic interactions among the constituents of this natural composite adhesive enhance functionality. These highly extensible threads may serve to expose additional cribellate nanofibrils to form attachment points with prey substrata while also immobilizing prey as they sink into the web due to gravity.
© 2020. Published by The Company of Biologists Ltd.