Madagascar’s Ancient ‘Pelican Spiders’ Are as Striking as They Are Strange

2018/1/12 22:58:59

Eriauchenius milajaneae is one of the 18 new species of pelican spiders from Madagascar described by scientists. This species was named after Wood’s daughter, and is known only from one remote mountain in southeast Madagascar. (Hannah Wood)


By Ryan P. Smith for the SMITHSONIAN.COM, JANUARY 11, 2018


Traipsing through the thick brush of the Madagascan jungle in search of exotic spider species, all the while plucking bloodthirsty land leeches from your legs and eyeing the sky for signs of cyclones, might not be an activity high on your personal bucket list. For veteran arachnologist and Smithsonian researcher Hannah Wood, though, the natural wonderland of Madagascar has become a sort of home away from home.


In a recently published research paper in the academic journal ZooKeys, Wood and her co-author Nikolaj Scharff shed light on the taxonomy of a group of particularly distinctive-looking Madagascan spiders. Formally known as Archaeids, the creatures are perhaps best described by their common name: “pelican spiders.” Each spider in this group boasts an extended, arching carapace and two extra-long mouthparts (called chelicerae), creating the illusion of a “neck” and “beak.” The resemblance to pelicans is uncanny.


The unusual appearance of Archaeid spiders, like most traits selected for in the course of Darwinian evolution, has a very practical purpose: it makes spider-vs.-spider hunting, the specialty of the pelican spider, considerably easier. Most spiders aren’t picky eaters—they’ll feed on whatever they manage to catch in their webs. If that means a little cannibalism now and then, so be it. Archaeids, for their part, eat nothing but spiders (though they try to avoid making meals of their own species). Flies aren’t even on the menu.


Having stalked or lured out a target spider, an Archaeid will strike swiftly, thrusting its two chelicerae downward to impale the prey, then holding it at a safe distance (out of range of venom or web attacks) until dead. Archaeids are by no means the only spider-killer spiders out there—the “pirate spiders” of the widespread Mimetidae family, for instance, are well known for tugging on the webs of other spiders to coax them down, then feasting on them. The bizarre “pelican” morphology of Archaeidae is what sets them apart.

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