One 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