"I was curious to understand why these strange-looking spiders looked the way they did", Wood told Gizmodo, "and furthermore, why there was so much variation in the way they looked".
Once upon a time, 165 million years ago, there lived a spider who looked like a pelican.
Hannah Wood, curator of arachnids at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, in Washington DC, US, has examined and analysed hundreds of pelican spiders found in the field in Madagascar and preserved in museum collections. With a length between two and eight millimeters, the assassin spider hunts other spiders while they wait for their pray. Also known as "assassin spiders", pelican spiders mostly follow their prey at night and perform the attack with the part of the mouth with fangs. These spiders also occur in Australia and South Africa; however, the species with the longest "necks" occur in Madagascar.
What makes them unique is that, unlike other arachnids, pelican spider don't make webs. After years of collecting pelican spiders from Madagascar and studying them in museum collections, Wood and colleague Nikolaj Scharff of the University of Copenhagenin Denmark described the freakish hunters in unprecedented detail.
In a new study, scientists have discovered 18 new species of pelican spiders. If you're a spider, you know exactly what I'm describing - a beast, which, at least to smaller spiders, is an otherworldly, eldritch terror: the pelican spider. They're called pelican spiders because their huge jaws resemble seabirds beaks, National Geographic explains.
"They are kind of like these little wolves in the forest capturing other spiders", she added.
The first pelican spider ever discovered, in 1854, was encased in 50-million-year-old amber. After analyzing the genitals, the scientists confirmed that they have discovered 18 new species of spider eating pelican spiders. The long neck allows the spider to hold its victim away from the rest of its body so as to evade potential counterattacks. Her analysis, focusing on spiders of the Eriauchenius and Madagascarchaea genera, sorted the spiders into 26 different species - most of which have never before been described. However, when intrepid scientists found the living pelican spiders, they were dubbed "living fossils".
Wood says fossilised remains of pelican spiders have turned up in the northern hemisphere but the distribution pattern of living examples - Madagascar, South Africa and Australia - suggests their ancestors were dispersed to these landmasses when the earth's supercontinent Pangaea began to break up around 175 million years ago.
The California Academy of Sciences started an arthropod inventory in 2000, as the wildlife in Madagascar is not sufficiently studied.
Wood noted that as with most things, this hunch has yet to be tested experimentally with pelican spiders themselves, saying she has not yet seen a pelican spider eat one of its own.
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