Face-Sized Tarantula Spider Discovered In Sri Lanka, Already Threatened With Extinction From Deforestation

An enormous face-sized new species of tarantula spider has just been discovered in Sri Lanka. Not quite as big as some of its tarantula relatives, such as the Goliath Bired-eater, or other spider species in the region, such as the Giant Huntsman, the spider is still certainly a sight to see, with an 8-inch leg span.

Poecilotheria rajaei
Image Credit: Ranil Nanayakkara

The new species, Poecilotheria rajaei, is also venomous, rather fast, and “interesting” looking, so you can imagine that it probably doesn’t much sympathy from most people. But it should. The newly discovered spider is already well on its way to extinction, largely because of deforestation in the region and expanding human settlements.

“Covered in beautiful, ornate markings, the spiders belong to the genus Poecilotheria, known as ‘Pokies’ for short. These are the tiger spiders, an arboreal group indigenous to India and Sri Lanka that are known for being colorful, fast, and venomous. As a group, the spiders are related to a class of South American tarantula that includes the Goliath bird-eater, the world’s largest.”

“They are quite rare,” Ranil Nanayakkara, the co-founder of the Sri Lankan organization Biodiversity Education and Research, told Wired. “They prefer well-established old trees, but due to deforestation the number have dwindled and due to lack of suitable habitat they enter old buildings.”

Because of this loss of habitat, the spiders have been coming into contact with humans much more often, this is likely part of the reason why they have now been discovered.

Sri Lanka new spider species
Image Credit: Ranil Nanayakkara

Back in October of 2009, “a local villager presented Nanayakkara and his team with a dead male specimen that didn’t resemble known Poecilotheria in the area. Before the team could begin describing the presumptive new species, they needed more individuals. Scouring the semi-evergreen, forested area for females and juveniles required the help of police inspector Michael Rajakumar Purajah, who accompanied the team through areas just beginning to recover from a civil war. Eventually, the team found enough spiders — including the ones hiding in a hospital — to assemble a detailed description of the new arachnids.”

Deforestation is a serious and growing problem in Sri Lanka (as nearly everywhere else). “According to a 2009 report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, about 80% of Sri Lanka was once covered by closed canopy natural forest. By 1994, forest cover had decreased to 24%.”

Deforestation has a profound effect on biodiversity, regional climate, soil quality/loss, and often eventually leads to desertification.

When you consider that the vast majority of the land area of the world was covered in old-growth forests until only a few thousand years ago, and that the majority of this deforestation has occurred in only the last 100 or so years, the scale of the “problem” becomes very apparent. Deforestation has resulted in an enormous number of species extinctions (such as this spider likely), the degradation of vast swaths of previously fertile land, and the desertification of many previously temperate areas of the globe.

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