KZN Museum scientist discovers new spider species

2019-02-19 16:06
Dr John Midgley, assistant director of natural science at the KZN Museum, holds up a photo of the Ceratogyrus attonitifier — a new species of baboon spider he discovered in Angola. PHOTO: Ian Carbutt

Dr John Midgley, assistant director of natural science at the KZN Museum, holds up a photo of the Ceratogyrus attonitifier — a new species of baboon spider he discovered in Angola. PHOTO: Ian Carbutt

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A 15cm-long spider with orange hair and blue-green feet that was found in Angola has been confirmed as a new species among the horned baboon spiders, thanks to a soft “horn” to devour its prey, rather than a hard horn common to this genus.

KZN Museum scientist Dr John Midgley, who is the assistant director of natural science at the museum, made the discovery in late 2016. It was confirmed as a new species on February 6, and named Ceratogyrus attonitifier — attonitifier being a Greek word meaning “one that brings astonishment”.

Midgley told The Witness he knew right away that it was unlike anything seen before. “In some species of baboon spider there are little projections [or horns] on the back of the carapus muscle, this gives it more power to devour its prey. This spider doesn’t have that; it has a strange soft projection with no muscles. It looks completely ‘wrong’.

“It’s so bizarre: it is something that doesn’t look like it should exist.”

Midgley made the discovery while conducting a biodiversity survey commissioned by the Angolan government, which was seeking to set up national parks. He said exploration in Angola has been difficult in the past because of the civil wars and during colonial rule.

The team was looking at the possibility of the Angolan government setting up conservation sites around bodies of water that feed the Okavango Delta.

“The Delta has been conserved for decades, but whatever happens upstream will have consequences for the main area, so the point of our survey was to collect data to motivate for the creation of conservation sites.”

Midgley said a spider burrow had caught his eye. “I took out one spider and it looked very strange. We found two more burrows and found similar spiders and were confident we had found something new.

“Normally new species are discovered under a microscope while working through samples, but in this one I felt immediately this was new.”

He said he will now work on trying to find out more about the spider, including what effect its environment has over why its horn developed in this unusual way. “One of the wonderful things about being a scientist is that we can say ‘I don’t know — but I will find out’.”

Midgley said they were keeping the exact location of the spiders under wraps to prevent illegal trading in the spiders.

Baboon spiders are a subfamily of tarantulas and are native to Africa. Little is known about their biogeography and ecology but readers can help map the distribution of southern Africa’s baboon spiders by posting photos to the website: www.baboonspideratlas.co.za.

Read more on:    pietermaritzburg  |  spiders
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