Spider silk is well known for some spectacular properties. It is stronger than steel and tougher than Kevlar yet flexible enough to be spun into a wide variety of shapes.

New research shows that the material is not only strong but also smart.

“Spider silk has a particular way of softening and then being stiff that is really essential for it to function properly,” said engineer Markus J. Buehler of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who co-authored the new study, which appears in Nature Feb. 2.

A spider web provides its occupant with a home and a way to catch prey. It needs to stand up to pesky attackers and sometimes withstand hurricane-force winds. Using computer models of spider silk and experiments on the webs of common European garden spiders (Araneus diadematus), Buehler and his team found a web’s unique skills come from its ability to react differently to different stress levels.