Most spiders are opportunistic, eating whatever gets stuck in their web. Today, pelican spiders are only found in Madagascar, South Africa, and Australia - distributed across the old southern supercontinent of Gondwana, which broke up over 100 million years ago (some fossils date back to 165 million years). While the victim will struggle and perhaps attempt to attack the spider, pelican spiders, will keep them at arm's length while the prey is dying from a deadly venom injected into it.
After studying hundreds of specimens from Madagascar, a scientist has discovered 18 new species of one of the most freaky spiders on the planet: the spider-eating "pelican spider" that uses salad tong-like jaws to snatch prey. Pelican spiders are also called "assassin spiders" because their diet consists entirely of other spiders, which they slowly stalk and devour.
This unusual family of spiders caught the attention of Hannah Wood, curator of arachnids and myriapods (millipedes and their relatives) at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History and lead author on the new study.
Wood and colleague Nikolaj Scharff, from the University of Copenhagen, detail all 26 pelican spider species in the journal ZooKeys.
Pelican spider or assassin spider?The highly modified head and carapace allows for extremely manoeuvrable jaws that can be extended 90 degrees away from the body to attack spider prey at a distance.
Pelican spiders belong to a group of arachnids, and have gotten their name thanks to the pelican-like profiles. For years, the evolution and biodiversity of pelican spiders has been her primary research focus, one that has ultimately led to this discovery. The pelican spider is both a "living fossil" and a "Lazarus taxon" (an organism that gives the appearance of being resurrected from prehistory because its fossils were found before living versions).
Out of the 26 spiders that she sorted out, 18 species were found to be completely new ones which have never been seen before.
In 2000, the California Academy of Sciences launched a massive arthropod inventory in Madagascar, collecting spiders, insects and other invertebrates from all over the island.
Wood examined collections from expeditions to the island and her own fieldwork, making detailed measurements and observations of their physical and ecological characteristics, trying to piece together their interrelationships and their place in the local environment.
Wood said that the spiders will help scientists comprehend their diversity, but also the history of their evolution. However, when intrepid scientists found the living pelican spiders, they were dubbed "living fossils". "And in Madagascar, this is common, for arachnologists to be finding and describing new species".