Scientists have found a new species of spider in Miami that looks like a ‘small shiny black tarantula’ and has venom that induces painful stings just like a bee.
The Pine Rockland trapdoor spider (Ummidia richmond) was first found by a zookeeper in the grounds of Zoo Miami in Florida. With legs extended, the male is approximately the size of a one pound coin, while the female is estimated to be two to three times larger. Spiders of this type can live for decades in the same burrow for their entire life.
To me, it appears similar to a small shiny black tarantula, said Zoo Miami conservation chief Frank Ridgley. Similar species are ambush predators –they create a web burrow down into soft and sandy substrate with a hinged door at the surface. They spend their entire lives in that same burrow, waiting for prey to come past their trapdoor, then they lunge out from their camouflaged lair to grab their prey. Zoo Miami staff found the specimen back in 2012, in the pine Rockland forest that surrounds the zoo, which is southwest of Miami city centre.
Staff took a photo of the specimen and shared it with the zoo’s conservation and research department for identification – but it didn’t match any existing records for known species in the region. More than two years later, another spider was found and sent out to experts for an evaluation. Eventually, it made its way to Dr Rebecca Godwin of Piedmont College in Georgia who confirmed that it was a previously undescribed species. It’s part of the existing genus ummidia, which is related to tarantulas and was first described by Swedish arachnologist Tamerlan Thorell in 1875. I had no doubt that it was a new species, said Dr Godwin, who has authored a paper describing the creature, published in Zookeys. The female has a lifespan upwards of 20 years, while the male takes up to seven years to mature before it leaves its burrow to find a mate and dies shortly after. They have a rough carapace [shell] on their front half and a silvery-grey abdomen with a light-coloured patch on top. They’re really quite beautiful spiders.’
For humans, the spider’s venom is on par with a bee sting, according to Dr Ridgley at Zoo Miami, but it’s still effective against its prey – small invertebrates. Spiders like this often rely on their size and strength to subdue their prey, and the venom often acts to help breakdown and liquefy the insides of their prey. I was both elated and worried by the discovery, said Dr Ridgley. ‘Who doesn’t want to be part of discovering something like a new species? The other side of this discovery is that I am intimately familiar with the unique and globally critically-endangered habitat it comes from. So I immediately thought that it is likely already imperilled.
Locally, only 1.5 per cent of the spider’s pine rockland habitat survives outside Everglades National Park, according to Zoo Miami, suggesting it could be threatened already. Trapdoor spiders on the whole are very poor dispersers and tend to have very small ranges, said Dr Godwin. It is likely that this species is limited to this small area of threatened habitat and subsequently could be threatened itself.’