Experts have discovered two assassin spiders that were previously thought to be extinct living on a remote patch of an island off the coast of Australia.
They were spotted on a small patch of an unburnt part of Kangaroo Island, in the northwest region.
Evidence of the spiders (sometimes known as pelican spiders, due to their unique appearance) had only been seen in the Western River Wilderness Protection Area on Kangaroo Island, which was badly damaged during Australia’s bushfires that ravaged the continent in 2019 and 2020.
The spiders belong to the Zephyrarchaea austini species — which has been around for more than 140 million years, dating back to the Jurassic period.
Experts discovered two assassin spiders that were previously thought to be extinct living on a remote patch of an island off the coast of Australia
They were spotted on a small patch of an unburnt part of Kangaroo Island in the northwest part
The discovery of the two spiders on the remote atoll is considered a breakthrough, according to Dr Jessica Marsh, a research associate at the South Australian Museum, who was part of the find.
‘This is the first time the species has been found since high severity fires burnt their only known collecting locality,’ Dr Marsh said in a statement.
‘We have been surveying for the spiders since the fires, so it was an amazing feeling to finally find one.’
Assassin spiders are sometimes known as pelican spiders, due to their unique appearance
In 2019 and 2020, Australia’s bushfires destroyed a fifth of the continent’s forests
Marsh noted that the spider lives in ‘leaf litter’ that is around the height of a person’s knee in low-lying vegetation and is generally found near creeklines in open eucalypt vegetation communities.
This is considered ‘highly flammable,’ even if the fires in these regions are not as severe as those that were experienced by Australia in 2019 and 2020, in which a fifth of the continent’s forests were destroyed.
‘A section of the Western River Wilderness Protection Area was burnt in a prescribed burn in 2015 and was not impacted by the 2019/20 bushfires,’ Marsh explained.
‘Post-fire surveys of the area have revealed that the elevated litter layer has still not yet formed in the vegetation and no habitat for assassin spiders was found, illustrating how even lower severity and planned burns can be a threat to this species.
‘This also highlights its vulnerability, due to the length of time taken for suitable habitat to re-establish post-fire.
‘Like other species of assassin spiders, the [Kangaroo Island] species has a very small distributional range and restricted dispersal abilities making it particularly susceptible to major threats, such as prescribed and wild bushfires, feral pigs and increased fragmentation of native vegetation.’
They were spotted on a small patch of an unburnt part of Kangaroo Island, in the north west region
Assassin spiders are exceptional predators, not only preying on other spider species, but do so nocturnally.
In 2018, experts identified 18 new species of pelican spiders on Madagascar.
The spiders are no bigger than a grain of rice and have existed for 165 million years.
They have an elongated neck-like structure and long mouthparts – called a chelicerae.
They are found in South Africa, Australia and Madagascar.
The creatures have barely changed and have been called ‘living fossils’.
They have been around for at least 165 million years and potentially since before the supercontinent Pangea split 200 million year ago.
They do not make webs, instead hunting other spiders and killing them using their large pincers.
In total, there are believed to be 26 species of pelican or assassin spider, including the 18 discovered three years ago.
Pelican spiders can be found living in South Africa, Australia and Madagascar and were first found in a block of 50-million year old amber in 1854.
They were thought to be extinct until the animals were spotted on the island of Madagascar in 1881.
These spiders date back to the Jurassic period of more than 140 million years ago and play an important role in the ecosystem despite their small size, ranging between two to eight millimeters.
Dr Marsh said more research is needed to learn more about the endangered species.
‘The two spiders were found in only one batch of leaf litter; therefore, we need to undertake further surveying to find other populations on the Island and to better identify and mediate any threats, before we can be sure of its continued existence,’ Marsh explained.
Their name comes from their elongated neck-like structure and mouthparts that protrude from their heads like an angled beak.
Pelican spiders stalk their prey on their back six legs and lift their front two in the air to detect the web of their next kill.
The ‘assassins’ follow silk trails left by other spiders until they reach their web.
They then wait patiently until they have located their victim, before swiftly impaling them with their long, fang-tipped ‘jaws’, or chelicerae.
The spiders then hold the captured creature away from their body, keeping themselves safe from potential counterattacks, until their victim dies.
Modern-day pelican spiders are described as ‘living fossils’ and have barely changed from the ancient relics found from the late Jurassic era.
The researchers believe that the spiders may have existed as long ago as the super continent Pangaea, which started breaking up 200 million years ago.
They then spread to different continents with the breakup of Pangaea, which began around 175 million years ago.
Madagascar has long produced unique animal species and has been extensively studied by scientists in a variety of fields.
Despite the incredible biodiversity and being an ecological gold mine, the island is suffering from widespread deforestation and habitat loss.
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