The Spiderman has done a lot of impossible things on the silver screen; now scientists are putting the arachnids that inspired the superhero to funny uses.

Te Faye Yap, a mechanical engineer at Rice University, Houston, noticed that dead spiders always have their legs curled in, and wondered why. She took one up for detailed study and discovered that a spider moves its legs through hydraulic pressure — a chamber in its body pumps air into tubes in its legs, which then stretch out; when air is drawn back, the legs curl in.

Intrigued by this, Yap and her colleague Daniel Preston collected more dead spiders to experiment on.

They stuck a syringe into the spider’s chamber and pushed in air gently — the legs came alive, stretching out. Now you have made yourself a robotic arm that can grip and pick up really tiny objects without damaging them.

The dead spiders can pick up more than 130 per cent of their body weight and last through 1,000 open-close cycles, researchers Yap, Zhen Liu, Anoop Rajappan, Trevor Shimokusu and Preston say in a paper published in Advanced Science. They call the use of biotic materials as robotic components “necrobotics”. Giving the animals a coat of beeswax can slow the loss of body weight. Such “necrobotic grippers” could have multiple applications, including assembling things like microelectronics and for collecting specimens, they say.