Spider-man: How an adventurer discovered 31 new species after arriving in Australia

The man is racing against time to describe new spiders before they become extinct.

While most visitors to Australia do their best to avoid the country’s venomous creatures, one Brazilian man has done the opposite.

Since heading Down Under, Dr Pedro Castanheira has discovered over 31 new species of spider, and 7 genera in less than a year. He’s been travelling to the country’s most remote regions, hand collecting then describing them.

His latest find, Magnopholcomma adelphus is a species of venomous spider – but don't worry, its fangs are too small to pierce the human skin. Discovered dangling from a single string of silk, its description was published in the Australian Journal of Taxonomy last week.

Dr Pedro Castanheira has discovered over 31 species of spider since arriving in Australia less than a year ago. Source: Supplied
Dr Pedro Castanheira has discovered over 31 species of spider since arriving in Australia less than a year ago. Source: Supplied

How rare is this new spider discovery?

Remarkably it’s only the second species from the genus Magnophocolmma that’s ever been described — the other was found thousands of kilometres away in Queensland.

“They’re especially rare. The Queensland species is only known by one specimen… and our situation is exactly the same, we only have one single specimen for the species and the females are unknown,” he said.

Spiders feared extinct before they're discovered

It’s believed about 20 per cent of Australia’s spiders have been described, meaning there are thousands yet to be discovered. And there’s a noble reason Dr Castanheira is working tirelessly to identify them.

“Especially with climate change and habitat degradation and destruction, many spiders are becoming extinct before they’re discovered,” he said. His warning echoes that of many other experts in the field, with one warning in March a newly discovered trap-door spider is under threat.

It’s only by describing spiders, and then surveying their numbers that the creatures can be protected. The pressures they face are similar in Dr Castanheira’s home country, Brazil. So, since coming to Australia he’s also worked with a colleague over there to describe five species of South American spiders that also need protecting.

Dr Pedro Castanheira (background)  in the bush. Inset: a journal page and a picture of Magnopholcomma adelphus
Dr Pedro Castanheira (right) has discovered 31 new spider species, including Magnopholcomma adelphus (left). Source: Supplied/Australian Journal of Taxonomy
A list of all spider discoveries.
Source: Yahoo

Facts about the new Tasmanian spider:

  • The specimen was found in Tasman National Park.

  • It is nocturnal.

  • It has a large bulge on its head.

Other recent species discoveries:

Man's struggle to make Aussies love spiders

Trying to get the world loving spiders is also one of Dr Castanheira’s goals, so to generate interest he’s named other finds after an ABBA song, Elvis Presley and international soccer players.

Now working at Murdoch University as an arachnologist, he’s keen to share Australian spiders with the rest of the world. In January, he brought his old colleague Dr Renner Baptista to the wilds of Tasmania in search of new creatures.

The spider in close-up. An arrow points to its globular structure.
An arrow points to the small globular structure on Magnopholcomma adelphus. Source: Australian Journal of Taxonomy

While the Magnopholcomma adelphus appears similar to the Queensland species, there are tiny differences to their bodies, as Dr Castanheira expertly describes, “It’s very interesting because it has a globular structure on its clypeus (a plate on the front of the spider's head),” he said. “This is the only spider in this family that has this, so it was really easy to identify.”

Not only did they find Magnopholcomma adelphus, Dr Castanheira revealed to Yahoo there were other discoveries. “We have at least two other species from Tasmania on the way,” he said.

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