Pelican spiders lived 165 million years ago, and they are ‘spider assassin’

The pelican spider’s long neck and beak-like claws give it an almost birdy appearance. Don’t be fooled: they are stone cold killers. Credit: Hannah Wood, Smithsonian

Once upon a time, 165 million years ago, there lived a spider that looked like a pelican. About the size of a grain of rice and is just as quiet, the pelican spider toes under the sheet in the green parts of the world, looking for a prey to impale with the fanged, beak-like pincers at the end of its long neck. Her favorite meal: other spiders.

The happy ending to this story (for arachnophiles, at least) is that pelican spiders still exist and in much greater variety than biologists previously thought. According to a new paper, published today (Jan. 11) in the journal ZooKeys, there are at least 26 known species of pelican spiders (family name Archaeidae) still crawl around Madagascar and South Africa only, of 18 that has never been previously described. [5 Spooky Spider Myths Busted]

“I think that there are many more species that have not yet been described or documented,” Hannah Wood, curator of arachnids and myriapods at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History and author of the study, said in a statement. After years of collection of pelican spiders from Madagascar and studying them in museum collections, Wood and colleague Nikolaj Scharff from the University of Copenhagenin Denmark described the bizarre hunters in unprecedented detail.

Spider murderers caught in the act

How the pelican spider gets its name is no mystery. When he is not hunting, the spider often folds of her fanged claws, called chelicerae, down against the long, neck-like appendage connecting the arachnid head of his body. As a result, the pelican spider looks more like a bird than a spider in the profile. In contrast to a bird, but the spider’s mouth is located at the bottom of the neck, making the opening in the perfect range for you to feast on what the spider knows how to catch on the ends of the chelicerae.

Pelican spiders are active hunters, the paper said. Rather than spinning their own webs, they prefer to stalk the paths of the silk left by the spiders scuttling to their green environment. In the night, pelican spiders, follow these silky bread crumbs, slowly and often upside down through the leaves. While the spin is back with six legs, do walk, their front two legs, then swing through the air, feeling for prey. After finally reaching the edge of another spider’s web, pelican spiders can wait for hours for the right moment to strike (earning them the name “assassin ” spiders”).

Then hitting them with a deadly efficiency. The spiders swing their chelicerae away from their body in a quick, 90-degree arc tojab the shears in their prey. Thanks to the spider’s long neck and scissors, they keep their prey held innocent at arm’s length while the deadly poison pumps through the predators’ chelicerae, and their victims.

“Then,” Wood told Science News in 2014, after the publication of a previous pelican spider study, “they pull out one chelicera and leave the other hang in there with the spider, the prey is impaled.” Celebrations follows.

Pelican spiders are unusual, even by arachnid standards, ” the statement said, but their methods are tested. Wood calls today pelican spiders ‘living fossils’, such as the spiders appear to be remarkably similar to the species preserved in the fossil record dating back to 165 million years.

Most modern copies of pelican spiders are collected from Madagascar, South Africa and Australia. This wide distribution suggests that the kind of’ spin ancestors have ever lived on the supercontinent Pangaeabefore it started to break about 200 million years ago.

Originally published on Live Science.

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