The awe-inspiring spiders in the Avicularia genus have long been the subject of fascination. After years of dedicated labor, scientists finally finished cataloging all the species pertaining to this type of enormous tarantulas, only to discover three additional ones that had been previously overlooked.
Avicularia spiders got their fame as "bird eaters" - and subsequently their genus name - from a famous 1705 illustration by naturalist Maria Sibylla Merian, depicting a hairy tarantula of colossal proportions as it gorged on a bird. At the time the notion seemed to border on fantasy, but since then it has been widely proven.
First described in 1818, the Avicularia genus grew to comprise at least 50 species, but data concerning their individual characteristics remained relatively vague. All that was known about these fascinating giants narrowed down to their imposing size, their tree-dwelling habits, and their preferred prey.
These majestic spiders have been documented to feast on a large assortment of tiny creatures, ranging from insects to small mammals - particularly bats - and birds. Most Avicularia species reach sizes of 5 to 6 inches, and are distinguished by their fuzzy, hair-covered body.
'Bird Eaters' Untangled
Brazilian researcher Caroline Sayuri Fukushima, from the Instituto Butantan in São Paulo, took on the daunting task of sorting out the genus, and published her observations in the journal ZooKeys. Her time-consuming study eventually led to restricting the number of Avicularia species to only 12, but made her stumble upon three extra ones that no one had noted before.
To complete their mission, Fukushima and her team tracked down ancient specimens from museums around the world and proceeded to decipher original descriptions in Latin, French, Dutch, Portuguese, and German, so they could compare old observations with the anatomical characteristics of spiders from modern zoos and museums.
"The reasons to do this work were the necessity of solving the many problems of the genus (which were causing confusion to other genera, too), but also the chance to do something hard, big, important and new regarding tarantula taxonomy," explained Fukushima.
3 New Names On The 'Catwalk'
To straighten out the tangled Avicularia genus, researchers ended up creating three new ones: Ybyrapora, to describe specific spiders living in the Brazilian rainforest; Caribena, specifically designed for two species of Caribbean spider that were initially identified as Avicularia; and Antillena, which describes a species of tarantula discovered in 2013 and cataloged as Avicularia rickwesti.
This last genus encompasses large tarantulas found in the Dominican Republic, which can be easily spotted by the red pattern on their black back, shaped like an oak leaf.
Names were also chosen for the three new spider species that found their way into the Avicularia genus: A. caei, native only to Brazil; A. lynnae, seen in Ecuador and Peru; and A. merianae, indigenous exclusively to Peru, and which was named after the naturalist Merian.