The tiny tangled threads of the world's oldest spider web have been found encased in a prehistoric piece of amber, a British scientist said Monday.
Oxford University paleobiologist Martin Brasier said the 140-million-year-old webbing provides evidence that arachnids had been ensnaring their prey in silky nets since the dinosaur age. He also said the strands were linked to each other in the roughly circular pattern familiar to gardeners the world over.
"You can match the details of the spider's web with the spider's web in my garden," Brasier said.
The web was found in a small piece of amber picked up by an amateur fossil-hunter scouring the beaches on England's south coast about two years ago, Brasier said. A microscope revealed the existence of tiny threads about 1 millimeter (1/20th of an inch) long amid bits of burnt sap and fossilized vegetable matter.
While not as dramatic as a fully preserved net of spider silk, the minuscule strands show that spiders had been spinning circle-shaped webs well into prehistory, according to Simon Braddy, a University of Bristol paleobiologist uninvolved with the find.
"It's not a striking, perfect web," Braddy said. "(But) this seems to confirm that spiders were building orb webs back in the early Cretaceous" — the geological term for the period of time between 145.5 and 65.5 million years ago when dinosaurs and small mammals shared the earth.
Spider experts believe that webs were developed even earlier, but the delicate gossamer threads rarely leave any trace. Amber, or fossilized tree resin, can occasionally conserve bits of web — an earlier find in Lebanon was dated to 130 million years ago, according to Brasier.