Queensland Museum arachnologist Dr Robert Raven travelled to the Central Highlands of Tasmania in February surveying spiders as part of a Bush Blitz survey. And it was during this survey that uncovered two new species of spiders in one night! Dr Raven tells the story of these great discoveries.
Written by: Dr Barbara Baehr, Research Scientist, Terrestrial Environments (Arachnida)
Minute goblin spiders with orange armour are widely distributed but hidden! Goblin spiders have a worldwide distribution but are most common in the tropics and subtropics. Goblin spiders are mega diverse however most of the species are short range endemics living in habitats ranging from forests to deserts. The name Goblin spiders was chosen only a few years ago because of their grotesque body shape. Most of the Goblin spiders are orange colored with an armored body.
Written by: Dr Robert Raven, Head, Terrestrial Environments
In September I travelled with a team of scientists to Cape York to search for and collect Thick-legged Eastern Coastal Tarantulas, more commonly known as Whistling Tarantulas.
It’s the stuff of nightmares, big hairy spiders with huge fangs. But we don’t need to worry about that because the deadly funnel-web is down in Sydney and those other ones are from South America, right?
Wrong! The spider in the picture is a Mouse Spider (Missulena bradleyi) and they are found all over mainland Australia. They are the little cousin of the famous funnel-web (which, by the way, is not found just in Sydney, but I’ll save that for another blog).
The Mouse Spider is an old world or primitive spider along with the funnel-web, tarantula, trapdoor and whistling spider. Basically all the big ground dwelling scary ones. I say ground dwelling as the Huntsman spider may be big and hairy, but it does not belong to this group of spiders as it naturally lives under the bark of trees, so its natural habitat is different to primitive spiders, along with a different lung and fang structures.
Speaking of fangs, having large fangs is another primitive spider trait. They are usually parallel and vertical in primitive spiders, except for the Mouse spider which has adapted its fangs to use as pincers. They are still very large compared to its body size, but it can also grab, hold and crush prey using its fangs. It is this powerful clamping action which has also led to the limited use of venom by the mouse spider. Usually its crushing and piercing bite is enough to kill its prey; its venom glands are tiny when compared to the funnel-web. Now don’t go thinking it’s harmless. Apart from a very nasty bite, which easily and painfully pierces human skin, if the mouse spider does decide to use the little venom it has, it is just as toxic as the Sydney funnel-web. Lucky for one young Gatton boy, we learnt that the antivenom for the funnel-web works just as well on mouse spider bites.
So where would I find this spider? The Mouse spider creates a silk burrow under the leaf litter. There is no trapdoor or visible hole, just a flap of silk like a flattened sock indicates what lies beneath the soil. They can be found all over Brisbane, in bush reserves and also backyards. Mouse Spiders are a lot smaller than some other primitive spiders, a large
mouse spider may only be 5 cm long. The one found by Dr Robert Raven from Queensland Museum was only 2 cm long and was estimated to be 7 years-old. This specimen was brought back to Queensland Museum for further study as we know very little about the Mouse Spider compared to the famous funnel-web or even the daddy-long-legs. the mouse spider is rarely seen, preferring the dark of night and the obscurity of the leaf litter. They also rarely bite humans and when this has occurred, rarely use venom, so their profile as a dangerous spider is not very high.
So what should you do if your come across a mouse spider in your garden? Well like most things with eight legs or no legs, leave it alone. If you or your students want to get up close to our eight legged friends, consider borrowing one of the specimens from Queensland Museum loans that way you’ll know they are safe, but at the same time, they can inquire and explore.
Engage, Explore, Discover, Queensland Museum www.qm.qld.gov.au
Dr Barbara Baehr is a PBI (Planetary Biodiversity Inventory) Research Fellow working at Queensland Museum. For the last 5 years she has been working for the PBI Goblin Spider project and this will continue for the next two years.
Goblin spiders are very small, funny-looking spiders that look a bit like goblins, hence the name. There are lots of species and some have hooks, long leg spines, or scutae (shields or armour over the body). These spiders can be found in the canopy, under bark, or in leaf litter.
New species are being discovered and there is a blind species (a member of the new genus Prethopalpus) that was discovered in Western Australia in boreholes about 60m deep.
Like most spiders, Goblin Spiders immobilise their prey with venom. They secrete digestive enzymes into their prey to start the digestion process. Then they suck up the liquefied food. Common prey of Goblin Spiders includes small insects such as springtails.
Some Goblin Spiders have leaf-like setae (bristles) on a concavity on the underside of their abdomens. After identifying and naming new species, research is then carried out to determine the functions of some of these strange structures.
To help with this huge task of naming new species (taxonomy) people from Queenslandhave donated money to the project and in so doing they have had species of spiders named after them. For Example, Roger Kitching founded the IBISCA project and there is a new species of Goblin spider named Opopaea rogerkitchingi.
SEM (Scanning Electron Microscope) images below show the elongated fang of the male Goblin Spiders from the genus Cavisternum.
A member from the Oonopidae family is shown below. These small spiders (0.5-4.0mm) possess only 6 eyes and generally have an armour of abdominal scutae (plates). Barbara is currently revising the Australasian Opopaea genus which will include about 70 species.
To learn more about the amazing world of spiders visit the Spider section of our QM website, or view a video on Funnel-web Spiders. To learn more about Barbara’s research visit Dr Barbara Baehr’s Biography page.