Inside a tarantula spider's beating heart

Scan of a tarantula (image: Gavin Merrifield / Edinburgh University) Scientists colour the MRI images to highlight organs. The heart is shown in lighter colours in the posterior part of the body.

Scientists have peered inside the whole body of a live spider for the first time, revealing its beating heart and guts.

Using a specialised Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scanner, the researchers glimpsed the inner workings of a tarantula.

The scans showed blood flowing through the spider's heart, as well as revealing that the spider appears to use a double heart beat to push blood around its body.

Details of the scan were revealed at the Society for Experimental Biology meeting, which is being held in Glasgow, Scotland.

MRI scan of a double heart beat in real time

Researchers from Edinburgh University used MRI scanners at the Glasgow Experimental MRI centre.

These were previously used to allow scientists to examine rodents for medical research in an non-invasive way.

But by applying them to spiders, the researchers could also explore the inner workings of the large arachnid.

"In the videos, you can see the blood flowing through the heart and tantalisingly it looks as though there might be 'double beating' occurring, a distinct type of contraction which has never been considered before," says PhD researcher Gavin Merrifield of the University of Edinburgh.

The scientists were also able to measure heart rate and cardiac output much more accurately than previous methods which were either indirect or highly invasive.

They also hope to use the technique to explore more about spider physiology and behaviour.

Spider awaiting scan A spider awaits a scan

"One potential practical use of this research is to ascertain the chemical composition of spider venom," says Mr. Merrifield.

"Venom has applications in agriculture as a potential natural pesticide.

"On the more academic side of things, if we can link MRI brain scans with a spider's behaviour, and combine this with similar data from vertebrates, we may clarify how intelligence evolved."

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