Mad Scientist #15: Peter N. Witt

Peter WittIn a study that would make even the most cool-headed scientist sweat like a tasty man at a cannibal convention, researchers from the University of Oklahoma pumped nearly 300mg of LSD into the body of a male asiatic elephant.1 Immediately following the dosage, equivalent to nearly 3000 human hits of acid, the creature suffered a massive seizure and died.1

This was not an isolated incident. Countless animals have been drugged with hallucinogens in the name of science. Everything from cats2 and rats3 to snails4 and goats have had their doors of perception unwittingly flung open in the quest to answer one of [stoned] man’s most basic questions: What are our pets like high?

Thanks to German pharmacologist Peter N. Witt, we’ve even drugged spiders.

marijuana spider web

Spiders on weed

Why spiders? What could a creature whose brain fits comfortably on the head of a pin possibly tell us about our own psychology?

A spider can’t talk. And even if it could talk, I don’t think I’d want to hear what it has to say.

Spiders are really only good at one thing, spinning webs.

You can launch a spider into space,5 zap its central nervous system with a high powered laser,6 or pump it full of goofballs7 (N.B. Peter Witt did all these things) and it will still build a web. It will even spin one after multiple limbs have been chopped off.8 Of course, the webs they weave will be horribly disfigured—tortured windows into a shattered psyche—but that’s all the fun!

By measuring drug-induced changes in web creation, scientists are able to study drug behavior without having to put up with its most annoying, uncontrollable side-effect: stoned people.

caffeine spider web

Spiders on caffeine

And it turns out there are some freaky similarities between high spiders and ourselves. For starters, drugs that are relatively more potent in humans tend to be more potent in spiders too.7 So acid gets spiders more messed up than shrooms, just like us.

Web builders on weed are mysteriously sidetracked before they even make it to the outer portion of their spiral.9 Spiders on mushrooms and peyote build webs as if they literally weighed more, which matches the sensation of heaviness felt by many human users.10

But it gets weirder. Spiders actually weave more geometrically perfect webs on LSD than they do sober.7 And can you guess which drug leads to the most hideously deformed web structure? Caffeine.11

lsd spider web

Spiders on LSD

If you’re wondering just how Witt coaxed spiders into hitting up bongs and downing cups of coffee, it wasn’t peer pressure. Witt’s team used a variety of methods, including injecting the drugs directly into a fly’s butt, where the spider is wont to “tap the juices.”9

It’s very tempting for us to take what we know about stoned people and apply it do stoned spiders. Witt’s research doesn’t really dissuade us from this. He does a great job describing and classifying drug behavior in spiders, but admittedly offers little insight into the mechanisms behind this behavior.11

Is it really stoned apathy that causes baked spiders to space out? Or cosmic enlightenment that makes tripping spiders realize their fractal glory? Without any real explanation, it’s hard to say the similarities between spiders and man are anything more than trippy.

mescaline spider web

Spiders on peyote

Still, research boldly forged deeper into this unholy nexus of narcotics, arachnids, and insanity. Other researchers more obscure, and, we may assume, madder than Witt, substituted drugs with blood and urine from schizophrenics.12,13 After all, LSD is potent at almost imperceptibly small doses. Some psychiatrists began to wonder if there was another similarly inconspicuous psychochemical at work in the bodies of severely deranged mental patients.11 If it so far had eluded conventional detection, could we suss it out with spiders?

phenobarbital spider web

Spiders on phenobarbital (aka goofballs)

Contamination with schizophrenic bodily fluids was previously shown to be toxic to doves and tadpoles.13 It even produced catatonic behavior when injected into the brains of monkeys.13 Still, the effects of psychotic blood and urine on spiders were inconclusive.11 One American researcher found that blood from catatonic schizophrenics caused spiders to briefly stop building webs altogether.13 But overall the results were unconvincing.11 Thankfully we don’t have to worry about schizophrenic pee becoming a street drug anytime soon.

Anyways back to what we were talking about. Spiders on drugs—are they really stoned, or are we whacked out for even thinking that? You may be skeptical, but before you throw out the baby with the bong water, keep in mind that insects are already capable of some crazy intelligent things, like farming crops14 and constructing cemeteries.15 If insects can do smart stuff that we thought only we could do, who’s to say they can’t share in the dumber side of the human experience and get high too?

normal spider web

A normal spider web

1. West, L. J., Pierce, C. M., & Thomas, W. D. (1962). Lysergic acid diethylamide: Its effects on a male asiatic elephant. Science, 138(3545), 1100-1103.
2. Barratt, E. S., & Pray, S. L. (1965). Effect of a chemically depressed amygdala on the behavioral manifestations produced in cats by LSD-25. Experimental Neurology, 12(2), 173-178.
3. Geyer, M. A., & Light, R. K. (1979). LSD-Induced Alterations of Investigatory Responding in Rats. Psychopharmacology, 65, 41-47.
4. Abramson, H. A., & Jarvik, M. E. (1955). Lysergic acid diethylamide (Lsd-25): Ix. Effect on snails. The Journal of Psychology: Interdisciplinary and Applied, 40(2), 337-340.
5. Witt, P. N., Scarboro, M. B., Daniels, R., Peakall, D. B., & Gause, R. L. (1976). Spider web-building in outer space: evaluation of records from the Skylab spider. Journal of Arachnology, 4(2), 115-124.
6. Witt, P. N., Reed, C. F., & Tittel, F. K. (1964). Laser lesions and spider web construction. Nature, 201(4915), 150-152.
7. Witt, P. N. (1971). Drugs alter web-building of spiders: A review and evaluation. Behavoiral Science, 16(1), 98-113.
8. Witt, P. N., & Reed, C. F. (1965). Spider-web building. Science, 149(3689), 1190-1197.
9. Witt, P. N. (1954). Spider webs and drugs. Scientific American, 191, 80-86.
10. Christiansen, A., Baum, R., & Witt, P. N. (1962). Changes in spider webs brought about by mescaline, psilocybin and an increase in body weight. The Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics, 136, 31-37.
11. Witt, P. N., Reed, C. F., & Peakall, D. B. (1968). A spider’s web. Problems in regulatory biology. New York: Springer-Verlag.
12. Rieder, H. P. (1957). Biological determination of toxicity of pathologic body fluids. III. Examination of urinary extracts of mental patients with the help of the spider web test. Psychiatria et neurologia, 134(6), 378-396.
13. Bercel, N. A. (1960). A study of the influence of schizophrenic serum on the behavior of the spider Zilla-x-notata. Archives of General Psychiatry, 2, 189-209.
14. Mueller, U. G., & Gerardo, N. (2002). Fungus-farming insects: Multiple origins and diverse evolutionary histories. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 99(24), 15247-15249.
15. Martin, M., Chopard, B., & Albuquerque, P. (2002). Formation of an ant cemetery: swarm intelligence or statistical accident? Future Generation Computer Systems, 18(7), 951-959.

9 thoughts on “Mad Scientist #15: Peter N. Witt

  1. wendy

    A fabulous article. I worked with Peter Witt in the 1970’s and he was indeed an amazing man. A very kind, clever and fascinating scientist!

    1. Max Hartshorn Post author

      Awesome. I’m curious what research did you work on with Peter Witt? Thanks for the feedback!

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