Fears for massive newly-identified spider found living underground in Australia

The newly identified trapdoor spider is likely already endangered because it lives in a highly fragmented landscape.

A newly identified long-lived spider that’s the size of your hand and hides underneath the ground waiting for prey could frighten many Australians, but in truth, it has more to be afraid of than we do.

While the bite from Euoplos dignitas could be physically painful, like most trapdoor spiders it’s venom is not dangerous to humans.

But despite the fact it’s only just been described for the first time, the spider is believed to already be endangered. That’s because the arachnid is hanging onto existence in a heavily fragmented 1850 square kilometre area in Central Queensland’s Brigalow Belt, an area successive state governments have allowed to be cleared for cattle grazing and crops.

Two pictures of a trapdoor closed and open.
Euoplos dignitas is able to camouflage itself inside its borrow. Source: M. Rix/Journal of Arachnology

How describing Euoplos dignitas will lead to its protection

Researchers had long known the spider existed because specimens had been caught in the early and mid-twentieth century around the small town of Monto and Eidsvold, the region’s self-proclaimed beef capital.

What Dr Michael Rix, an arachnologist at Queensland Museum, and his team have achieved with the Journal of Arachnology is to describe and name the species for the first time.

“The first step in all conservation biology is taxonomy, we actually can’t protect anything unless we know it exists,” he told Yahoo News Australia.

The race is on to protect Euoplos dignitas from extinction. Source: Journal of Arachnology/M Rix
The race is on to protect Euoplos dignitas from extinction. Source: Journal of Arachnology/M Rix

Their work will pave the way for Euoplos dignitas to be assessed by the Queensland government for official endangered listing – and now the race is on to protect it before it's driven to extinction.

The exact location of the small colony of spiders Dr Rix’s team discovered is a well-guarded secret. If it becomes known, they’re concerned the species could be quickly targeted and removed because they are so “big and beautiful”.

“There is actually, believe it or not, a really thriving trade in these trapdoor spiders,” he said. “They're really sought after by collectors in the live pet hobbyist trade which is really, really sad.”

Interesting facts about Euoplos dignitas

  • The spider is highly camouflaged in its burrow

  • Females can likely live for at least 20 years

  • They probably take between five and seven years to mature

  • Females spend their whole lives in a single burrow

  • Males leave the burrow in search of females and die after mating

  • Females have a low metabolism and survive for long periods without food

Dr Rix is hopeful that Euoplos dignitas can be protected. Source: Queensland Museum
Dr Rix is hopeful that Euoplos dignitas can be protected. Source: Queensland Museum

How does the future look for Euoplos dignitas?

While Euoplos dignitas is likely confined to living in a small area, the good news is the population assessed is doing quite well.

Researchers now plan to spend longer in the area and survey the landscape for other populations, and once this data is collected they hope to be able to model the habitat in order to predictively map landscapes the species occupies.

“We are pretty concerned as we are for a number of trapdoor spiders because they’ve just lost most of their habitat,” Dr Rix said.

In Australia, there are an estimated 10,000 species of spider, but just 2,700 have been described. Dr Rix and the Project DIG team plan to continue to name and identify new species of spider in order to boost their chances of survival.

"Science tells us that the protection of habitat is one of the best things we can do for the protection of biodiversity," he said.

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