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Spooky new spider weaves monster webs

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big spider web weaverOne of the largest orb-weaving spiders had remained hidden from entomologists in plain sight. The new species of giant golden orb weaver (Nephila komaci), which builds meter-wide webs, entangled a doctoral student who stumbled upon a specimen in a museum collection.

"It was surprising to find a giant female Nephila from South Africa in the collection…that did not match any of the described species," Matjaz Kuntner, who is now chair of the Institute of Biology of the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts and co-author of the paper, said in a prepared statement.

After noting the strange specimen in the Plant Protection Research Institute in Pretoria, South Africa in 2000, Kuntner, who at the time was researching for his PhD in biology at George Washington University, and his colleagues set out to find one in the wild, but to no avail. After searching some 38 other museum collections over the next few years, the team found only one other specimen of the possible species (collected from Madagascar and stored in the Naturhistorisches Museum Wien in Vienna), leading the researchers to wonder if it was already extinct.

A few years later, however, three specimens of the new species were collected in Tembe National Elephant Park, which is in South Africa and Mozambique. The leggy female N. komaci has a leg span of about 15 centimeters. The males are the size of more standard orb spiders, with leg spans of about 7.7 centimeters. The new findings were published online Tuesday in the journal PLoS ONE.

Despite the confirmation that the impressive spider is still spinning its massive webs, the researchers are unsure of its population numbers. "We fear the species might be endangered," Jonathan Coddington, a senior scientist at the Department of Entomology at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., and co-author on the paper, said in a prepared statement. "Our data suggest that the species is not abundant; its range is restricted and all known localities lie within two endangered biodiversity hotspots: Maputaland and Madagascar."

With some 500 new spider species described every year, the announcement of a new arachnid may not be breaking news. But the last novel giant golden orb weaver was discovered in 1879, making this sizable spider a big entomological catch.

Image of a giant golden orb-web and spider of the same genus (Nephila inaurata), courtesy of M. Kuntner

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  1. 1. callen 1:09 pm 10/21/2009

    If anyone can remember the name of the Englishman "Mike" something who became head of the Washington Nat’l Zoo: I traveled with him on a Smithsonian trip 20 plus years ago to the Indian Ocean and Madagascar, where we saw some huge Nephila at about telephone wire heigth. Mike’s specialty was spiders: he had been working in Costa Rica the 6 years prior to this trip. In sunlight, they were golden, and easily spotted.

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  2. 2. hotblack 1:13 pm 10/21/2009

    I could never figure out how these big suckers get that first strand from one tree branch to another one a meter away, without marching it across the ground and up the other side, getting it tangled in everything en route. Obviously, this girl doesn’t float over on a soft breeze. Weird.

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  3. 3. callen 1:42 pm 10/21/2009

    Some suspend themselves on a special web strand: the outside stronger kind that is used as attachments, and then swing as if on a pendulum: however I have seen them also hit the ground, and then maybe they do walk still attached to the silk. Not sure what Nephila does.

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  4. 4. Burn Doubt 12:09 am 10/22/2009

    I’m pretty sure all orb weavers extend a single, special type of strand with a very sticky end. Then it’s up to wind to blow it where it will stick. Once it has, they proceed with the rest of the web. It’s easy to look this info up.

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  5. 5. Plain-2009 11:33 pm 10/22/2009

    You say these gigantic spiders (Nephila Komaci) have a leg span of 15 centimeters in the female! JesusCrist! and you say they seem to be in danger of disappearing. I guess some work will be done to avoid the disappearance of these creature. If you are successful in reproducing these critters in captivity and release them in the wild in Madagascar there will be no human beings left in the island. All of them will flee the place and run for their lives! How dangerous are they for humans? I guess no one wants them to disappear but please do not release them any where near where I live. And putting aside my usual modesty I consider myself a brave man!

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