The reserve is in the Western Ghats regions, which is known for being a biodiversity hotspot, stuffed with many species of plants and animals. But while much of the larger flora and fauna have been described, the area’s smaller inhabitants – the charismatic minifauna – have gotten a bit less attention.
So, in early October, a team of scientists set out to survey the Reserve’s spider species. For four weeks, the team found, photographed, and cataloged a multitude of eight-legged critters – logging 210 different spider species in total, says leaderA.V. Sudhikumar of the Centre for Animal Taxonomy and Ecology of Christ College, Irinjalakuda.
“We explored different habitats like evergreen forests, mountain top grass lands, moist deciduous forests and small shola forests,” Sudhikumar said, noting the inherent difficulties of working in the area. “Field study was not so easy because so many deadly poisonous snakes were there. Bison and bears were common visitors of our campsite. We could enjoy the roaring of tigers during our sleep.”
But among the many spiders the team managed to find were eight species scientists hadn’t seen before. After combing the published literature, the team reached the preliminary conclusion that the eight species were new to science, and are planning to publish their findings in the Journal of Arachnology.
Among the newcomers is a spider in the genus Deinopis, which is known for its large, prominent eyes and dastardly way of catching bugs. These are the net-casting spiders – large arachnids that clutch a silken net between their four front legs, and use it to snare passing insects. “This twig like spider is well camouflaged and very difficult to spot in the field,” Sudhikumar said.
Also difficult to spot is a spider that has evolved to resemble bird poop. But the real bird turds that normally decorate a leaf aren’t ambush predators like Calaenea, which waits for passing prey and then becomes the most aggressive piece of poop on the planet.
There’s also a new type of fishing spider, in the genus Dolomedes, which lives in the vegetation near streams and catches small fish that go swimming by (it’s also capable of being underwater for a few minutes, Sudhikumar says). And there’s a new nocturnal burrowing spider, Haploclastus, that despite its furriness is incredibly difficult to spot because it’s so good at staying underground.
And there are two new jumping spiders, the kind of arachnid most likely to warm the hearts of spider-haters with their funny little faces and bold, bright colors. One of the newbies has yellow spots, and the other, in the genus Stenaelurillus, uses its brightly colored face to attract mates, Sudhikumar says.
Rounding out the finds are a green-spotted Neoscona and diamond-shapedStenochilus.
It’s a wealth of diversity that leaves much for biologists to grapple with.
“Some species are showing similarity with African regions, and some other species are showing similarity with Malayan region,” Sudhikumar said. “This creates confusion in the evolutionary origin of spiders in the Indian subcontinent, especially in the Western Ghats.”