The latest phobia from Madagascar: the ‘pelican spider’

  • This species of pelican spider (Eriauchenius workmani) was discovered in the wild after having been known only from fossils and presumed extinct. contributed photo

  • The pelican spider Eriauchenius milajaneae was named after researcher Hannah Wood's daughter. It is known only from one remote mountain in the southeast of Madagascar. (Hannah Wood/Smithsonian) Nikolaj Scharff

Los Angeles Times
Friday, January 26, 2018

An unusual spider lurks in Madagascar’s rainforests.

With an elongated neck and a curved, beak-like mouth, this spider bears a striking resemblance to a pelican. But to other arachnids, these “pelican spiders” look like an eight-legged nightmare — if they even see them coming.

The tiny assassins hunt other spiders, and they use their strange features to help them do it.

Pelican spiders stalk their victims, often by following a line of web left by the unwitting target. When the predator finds its prey, it raises one of its elongated jaws and stabs the spider with a venom-tipped fang. The hunter dangles its prize and waits for it to die before moving in to eat it.

Arachnologists discovered pelican spiders in 1854, finding a specimen preserved in 50-million-year-old amber. At the time, experts assumed the odd-looking spider was extinct. But a few decades later, a species remarkably similar to the amber-entombed fossil was found thriving in Madagascar.

Eriauchenius workmani is the most common type of pelican spider in Madagascar’s eastern rainforest. It’s also the largest, about the same length as a grain of rice.

“You don’t need to look at it under a microscope to appreciate it,” said Hannah Wood, curator of arachnids and myriapods (a group that includes centipedes and millipedes) at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. “It’s a really pretty species, I think. You look at it and you won’t even think it’s a spider ... because it looks so bizarre.”

Since E. workmani’s discovery, the number of known pelican spider species has exploded. It ballooned again this month with the unveiling of 18 additional species that hail from Madagascar, home to the largest branch of the strange spider family.

Wood and Nokolaj Scharff of the University of Copenhagen and the Natural History Museum of Denmark described the new species (along with eight others) in the journal Zookeys.

The total number of pelican spider species in Madagascar now stands at about 40, but Wood believes there could be up to 40 more waiting to be found. It’s common for arachnids to hide in leaf litter during the day, making them hard to spot even if you’re looking for them, she said.

There have been times when Wood went searching for a particular species but found a whole new one instead.

“Every time someone goes there, it seems there’s a new species that turns up,” she said.

Many of these species, such as the triangular-headed Eriauchenius pauliani, are known from only one or two museum specimens.

“I really want to collect this spider alive and just see what it’s doing, but so far this species has proven to be quite elusive,” Wood said. “I hope it’s still alive. The last specimen was collected in the 1960s.”

During a 2008 expedition in Andohahela National Park, Wood searched in vain for a species she’d described based on two females and a juvenile specimen stored in the collection of the California Academy of Sciences.

In the Zookeys paper, she named the spider Eriauchenius milajaneae, after her daughter Mila Jane, “in the hope that one day she will go to Andohahela to find this spider.”