Wednesday, August 29, 2012
SAN DIEGO Some amateur explorers were collecting flora and fauna in the caves of southern Oregon when they came upon a brown spider about three inches across. It seemed like a common-enough spider, looking a bit like a brown recluse.
But their specimen got caught in a web of inquiry, and eventually convinced scientists they were looking at something they hadn't seen in more than a hundred years in North America: an ancient, yet newly discovered spider family. They called the spider the Trogloraptor, aka "Cave Robber."
California scientists discovered a one-of-a-kind spider in Oregon caves, though it may have relatives in the redwoods.
Charles Griswold is an arachnologist at the California Academy of Science in San Francisco, where the new spider eventually found its way. Griswold marveled at the creature's fearsome legs and claws.
"I would compare them to scythes or switchblade knives," he said.
Spider specialists had never seen one like this before. This spider does not spin webs, but hunts by hanging by a strand from cave ceilings. Studies showed it bore much in common with the goblin spider.
A look at fossils showed it could also trace a unique lineage back 130 million years. Griswold said the spelunkers had discovered not only a new species of spiders, but a new spider family.
"It is a new species of spider, so evolutionary distinct that we've had to propose a new family to contain it," he said.
But are there any family relatives? Fortunately, this story had legs and it traveled to San Diego, where some graduate students were also examining a novel spider they'd collected in a redwood forest. Their San Diego State University professor, Marshal Hedin, said he soon realized their spider was in the same family as the cave robber.
"So whether or not it's the same species is still unclear," said Hedin.
There's still plenty to learn about the Trogloraptor, but research is creeping along.