October 19, 2018

Pelican spiders lived 165 million-years-ago and they are 'spider assassins'

13 January 2018, 08:05 | Edward Lowe

Pelican spiders lived 165 million-years-ago and they are 'spider assassins'

The pelican spider's long neck and beak-like pincers give it an almost birdy appearance. Don't be fooled they're stone cold killers. Credit Hannah Wood Smithsonian

The pelican spiders do not spin webs of their own either, but they might be equipped with "tech" that allows them to follow the dragline of silk that all spiders leave behind when they walk.

This unusual family of spiders caught the attention of Hannah Wood, curator of arachnids and myriapods (millipedes and their relatives) at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History and lead author on the new study. They're called pelican spiders because their very big jaws resemble seabirds beaks, National Geographic explains.

Researchers with the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History have discovered 18 new species of pelican spider, a group of arachnids that look as absurd as they sound.

Pelican spider or assassin spider? As their victim struggles and potentially tries to attack their captor, the pelican spider keeps them at arm's length as they die from an injection of deadly venom. Spiders are just as afraid of you as you are of them, maybe even more so. "These spiders attest to the unique biology that diversified in Madagascar", Wood said in a press release. Today, pelican spiders are only found in Madagascar, South Africa, and Australia - distributed across the old southern supercontinent of Gondwana, which broke up over 100 million years ago (some fossils date back to 165 million years).

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The new species were discovered living in the jungles of Madagascar, an African island in the Indian Ocean that hosts a plethora of endemic plant and animal species - species not found anywhere else on Earth. If you're a spider, you know exactly what I'm describing - a beast, which, at least to smaller spiders, is an otherworldly, eldritch terror: the pelican spider.

"These spiders have likely been on Madagascar since Pangaean times, 180 million years ago", Wood told Smithsonian. Its favorite meal: other spiders.

Out of the 26 spiders that she sorted out, 18 species were found to be completely new ones which have never been seen before.

The California Academy of Sciences started an arthropod inventory in 2000, as the wildlife in Madagascar is not sufficiently studied.

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Because the living spiders were found after their ancestors had been uncovered as fossils and presumed extinct, they can be considered a "Lazarus" taxon, risen from the dead.

Like the coelacanth, assumed extinct for millions of years, pelican spiders have survived millennia while barely changing at all. The new species of pelican spiders have same elongated neck and beak-like pincers or chelicerae like other pelican spiders.

Wood examined collections from expeditions to the island and her own fieldwork, making detailed measurements and observations of their physical and ecological characteristics, trying to piece together their interrelationships and their place in the local environment. It is also important to cover Madagascar as a spot which has a high potential for new species to be discovered, the press release reported.

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