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Chance encounter in country town sparks discovery of new spider species

"He was on the track, and we were going for walk, and that led to the description of a new species"

A chance encounter in an Australian country town led to the discovery of a new species of trapdoor spider.

Dr Mark Harvey had been strolling with his wife on a hot morning in Pemberton, 275km south of Perth, when he spotted the large male on the track ahead of him.

“He was on the track, and we were going for walk, and that led to the description of a new species,” he revealed to Yahoo.

While most of us would have stepped over the spider, Harvey is the resident arachnologist at the Western Australian Museum, so he wanted to find out more about the creature, which was looking worse for wear, and so he took it back to his office.

A row of houses in Pemberton with forest in the background.
Harvey discovered a new species of spider while walking through Pemberton. Source: Getty

Why was the spider looking unwell?

Other than Harvey's short encounter, very little is known about Proshermacha robertblosfeldsi. With the creature near death, Harvey quickly placed its body in ethanol to stop its DNA from degrading.

“I think he’d been wandering looking for females for a few nights. And he was on his last legs because they do die at the end of the mating season,” he said.

With no other living individuals from this species observed by researchers, that short encounter is all that’s known of Proshermacha robertblosfeldsi.

However, Harvey and his team were able to study dozens of other preserved bodies that were collected in traps in the 1970s and 1980s. They were stored at the Western Australia Museum and finally only described for the first time this week.

Proshermacha robertblosfeldsi (left) and Proshermacha telaporta (right). A technical computer screen (background)
Proshermacha robertblosfeldsi (left) and Proshermacha telaporta (right) were painstakingly described in minute detail by scientists in order to proved they had discovered two new species. Source: Journal of Australian Taxonomy/Getty

Do we know anything about this new spider species?

Because the spider is similar to other open-holed trapdoor spiders, experts are able to predict a little of its behaviour.

Unlike other trapdoor spiders, the open holed variety actually don’t have a lid over their burrow. Researchers examining their living quarters have been able to peer inside and gain insight into their feeding habits.

“Like all spiders, they suck fluids from their prey and leave the husk. And trapdoor spiders tend to make a little side chamber halfway down the burrow to discard the bits they haven't eaten… which in most cases is actually bits of ants, but sometimes small cockroaches or other insects,” Harvey said.

For humans, their bites would likely be slightly painful, but less so than a bee sting. “I can’t recall the last time anyone ever got bitten by one,” Harvey added.

More spider discoveries

Why describing new spider species is important

After its discovery in January 2022, the creature was placed inside the Western Australian Museum’s wet store, a secret facility containing around 400,000 arachnid specimens.

On Wednesday, after a detailed study of its morphology, its existence was revealed in the Australian Journal of Taxonomy. But it wasn’t the only new spider to be described, the discovery of a separate species called Proshermacha telaporta was also announced after it was observed living in the Geraldton Sandplains and Swan Coastal Plain bioregions.

Close up of Proshermacha telaporta.
Proshermacha telaporta was the second species described in the new Australian Journal of Taxonomy paper. Source: Western Australian Museum

New spider discoveries are not uncommon in Australia, as only around 2,700 of an estimated 10,000 species have been described.

“When you work on groups that are really diverse like trapdoor spiders, we haven’t got new species fatigue but it’s a little bit close. We know of hundreds of new species,” Harvey said. “So when we find one we don’t scream 'eureka' and start working on it right away. Then we look to study them as soon as we can.”

While discoveries are common, that doesn’t mean they’re not important. Without a formal recognition and naming of a new species it’s very hard to prioritise its protection.

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