Study reveals 18 new pelican spider species

Federico Mansilla
Enero 13, 2018

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

Hannah Wood, curator of arachnids at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, in Washington DC, US, has examined and analysed hundreds of pelican spiders found in the field in Madagascar and preserved in museum collections. Instead, they hunt other spiders, and they're incredibly cruel about it. As such, many spiders occasionally eat other spiders. But the latest study has revealed that a team of scientists has found new species of spider eating pelican spiders which indicate that the pelican spider species are not that rare as it was previously thought.

This pelican spider is dangling its spider prey upside-down using its chelicerae after capturing it. After years of collecting pelican spiders from Madagascar and studying them in museum collections, Wood and colleague Nikolaj Scharff of the University of Copenhagenin Denmark described the freaky hunters in unprecedented detail. Now, new research published today in the journal ZooKeys details the discovery of a whopping 18 new species of pelican spider from Madagascar. They're called pelican spiders because their enormous jaws resemble seabirds beaks, National Geographic explains. 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. About the size of a grain of rice and just as quiet, the pelican spider tiptoed under foliage in the leafy parts of the world, looking for prey to impale with the fanged, beak-like pincers at the end of its long neck. This, combined with its mouthparts - which are lengthened into folding, salad tong-like abominations - give the spider a profile that evokes the gawkiness of a pelican.

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Eriauchenius milloti is one of the 18 new species of pelican spiders from Madagascar described by the scientists. But then who deals with the pelican spider?

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. The highly modified head and carapace allows for extremely manoeuvrable jaws that can be extended 90 degrees away from the body to attack spider prey at a distance. The current biodiversity crisis in the region threatens to even extinguish species not yet known to science, those perhaps much like the new contingent of pelican spiders. Once they strike silk, they ever-so-carefully lure out the web's owner with a strategic pluck or two, then swiftly dispatch the victim with those long, rotating jaws, each tipped with a venomous fang. This wide distribution suggests the species' arachnid ancestors once lived on the supercontinent Pangaeabefore it began breaking apart roughly 200 million years ago.

Wood noted that as with most things, this hunch has yet to be tested experimentally with pelican spiders themselves, saying she has not yet seen a pelican spider eat one of its own.

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