August 17, 2012 | 19
Meet Trogloraptor, fearsomeness incarnate. The creature more than lives up to its name—it is, in fact, an eight-legged showcase for scientific novelty. The spider somewhat resembles the brown recluse, famed for its flesh-necrotizing venom—but at four centimeters, Trogloraptor is about twice as large. In fact, this spider is an entirely new critter—just look at those legs, each ends in a curved, scythelike claw. Citizen scientists and arachnologists have uncovered these spiders in the caves of southwestern Oregon and old-growth redwood forests. As they report in ZooKeys, the discovery of Trogloraptor is a taxonomic wonder that establishes a new family, genus and species in the spider family tree.
Troglo's story begins with citizen scientists in the Western Cave Conservancy who spotted the strange spider in Oregon's caves. They sent specimens to researchers at the California Academy of Sciences where entomologist Tracy Audisio, a research fellow at the California Academy of Sciences, puzzled over the new find. After approaching every member of the arachnology lab, she and Charles Griswold, the academy's curator of arachnology, took the finding to arachnologists around the country. They combed through comparative anatomy, fossil records and genetic analyses in their efforts to place the new spider, only to conclude that the cave dweller has a totally unique lineage.
The closest known relatives to this clawed creepy-crawler come from the Oonipidae, or goblin family of spiders. Trogloraptor's anatomy reveals, however, several ancient features, including a primitive respiratory system that sets these spiders apart. The researchers believe the Trogloraptor family separated into its own evolutionary branch some 130 million years ago.
The spider's name is Latin for "cave robber," a reference to its habitat and rapacious-looking talons. As for the claws, there's another genus of spiders with similar appendages, the Spelungula of New Zealand. These cave spiders are otherwise distinct from Trogloraptor, suggesting their claws evolved independently. Troglo's claws are barbed on their underside and may be designed to clamp shut on passing prey. The researchers believe that, like Spelungula, Trogloraptor dangles from cave ceilings with legs akimbo, then snaps its claws like a trap when small flies pass by. The spider's exact prey, however, is unknown. Before arachnophobes get too nervous, though, Griswold notes that the spiders are not likely to be venomous to humans. In fact, they're quite shy. Working with live specimens, he's observed that their behavior is distinctly unaggressive and their main interest is escaping the light as quickly as possible.
Researchers at San Diego State University have spotted juveniles in old-growth redwood forests. Although more study is needed, these specimens are likely a different species from those found in the caves. Griswold notes that given the age of this family and the former distribution of redwoods in North America, it's possible that other Trogloraptor species could inhabit caves across the country. "They could be living in caves in Nevada," Griswold says. "They may have been hiding there since the Pliocene or Miocene." Given their fragile habitats and ancient history, these creatures warrant protection as evolutionary marvels.
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