Researchers just described 18 new species of the cannibalistic Madagascan pelican spiders. Get to know the unique-looking spiders and find out why they are practically living fossils.
Eighteen Newly Described Spider Species
In Madagascar lives a class of spider so unique that it is named after another incredible animal — the pelican. In a newly published paper, Smithsonian researcher Hannah M. Wood and University of Copenhagen's Nikolaj Scharff describe 26 pelican spider species, 18 of which have not been previously described.
The data from the new study were gathered both from hundreds of preserved museum specimen as well as from living specimen in the field. For a long time, such spiders were unknown and unstudied due to the remoteness of their habitat in Madagascar, but the new paper highlights the incredible creatures.
Perhaps one of the most striking characteristics of the pelican spider is what gives its name in the first place. The creature has an extended carapace and long mouth structures which protrude from its head, making it look like the creature has a long beak like its bird namesake.
Interestingly, unlike many of its spider relatives, pelican spiders do not make webs to catch their prey, which happens to be other spiders. These nocturnal hunters instead follow the trails of silk which lead them to their prey and quickly impale their victim with their long "beaks." They then use the same long beaks to hold their prey away from their bodies to avoid any counterattacks until the prey succumbs to death.
'Living Fossils' From Pangaean Times
Even more striking than the pelican spiders' appearance and choice of meals is its age. They were first found preserved in a 50-million-year-old Baltic amber in 1854 but were found alive in Madagascar in more modern times. Since then, pelican spider fossils have also been found in 95-million-year-old and 165-million-year-old amber,
This suggests the possibility of the spiders having been around at the time when Pangaea was breaking up, causing the dispersion of the species to Australia and South Africa. What's more, because the fossilized remains were found and the species was presumed extinct before the living specimen were found, pelican spiders are considered a "Lazarus" taxon, which pertains to creatures that reappeared after they were already considered extinct.
Only In Madagascar
In the case of the newly described pelican spider species, they can only be found in the island of Madagascar. Unfortunately, the island and its creatures are currently threatened by major deforestation, which could significantly affect its unique biodiversity.
Although they may not be the most adorable of creatures, insects are a very important part of the Earth's ecosystem. This is true even for the feared spiders, and amazingly, there are still so much to be learned about them and so many species that are still undiscovered. The pelican spiders' case just goes to show that the Earth still has secrets for people to discover.
The paper is published in ZooKeys.