The discovery of five new species of armored spiders of the family Tetrablemmidae in the Karst caves of the Southwest of China has caught a particular strand of imagination for culture and science watchers. Researchers Shuqiang Li and Yanfeng Tong and their colleagues at the Chinese Academy of Science in Beijing have spent lots of time poking around in the materials on the floor of caves and in other nooks and crannies. The armored spiders discovery contributes to constantly updated maps of megadiversity.
Li and Feng identified the first species of Tetrablemmidae in China in 2007, and are contributors to a Planetary Biodiversity Inventory of Oopinidae (goblin spiders). These massive inventories are hosted on portals by the Global Biodiversity Inventory Facility. The tiny spiders of Tetrablemmedae and Oopinidae are “megadiverse” in the variation of their species and “microdistributed” in the specificity of their ranges. Tetrablemidae range across Central America, Brazil, equatorial Africa, southeast Asia and Micronesia. The documentation of specific ranges of related species contributes fine-scale geographical data that aids the formation of complex computer models. Finding new species and geo-coding their occurrence helps establish the big picture. The Chinese Academy of Science has only recently been admitted to the Planetary Biodiversity Inventory Facility.
Planetary Biodiversity Indexes were first supported in 2003by the National Science Foundation in response to a perceived crisis in taxonomy resulting from extinctions and the difficulty of sharing information. Early subjects of study included plant bugs (Miridae), slime molds (Eumycetozoa), catfish (Siluriformes), and the genus Solanum, which includes among others, tomatoes and nightshades. Beyond identifying un-described species and revising previous classifications, PGI study of catfish, for example, generated identification keys, regional checklists and field guides to increase capacity for further contributions.
The discovery of new species gives sensitive readers a spark of hope at a historical moment when international tensions threaten one’s composure. One can only imagine how regular announcement of species extinctions, “extinction indexes,” if covered in daily media, would impact the Dow and NASDAQ. Many not inclined towards research in taxonomy, may simply be pleased by the images of these semi-transparent, armored spiders who are so elemental as to inspire comparison with known forms: snowmen with eight muffin-legs, creatures from children’s drawings, from antique ceramic pots, or hand-painted battle armor of ancient Greek or Chinese warriors. And for those tempted to check, they bear no resemblance to the articulated armored spiders of the Demon’s Soul game.
These look more like primitive pond creatures. Living in the dark, they have four eyes unlike many spiders with eight eyes, and in fact their armor is flimsy: insects have an exoskeleton toughened with fibers of chitin and protein. These armored spiders have only weak sclerotization, incomplete hardening of their shells, formed by absorbing calcium carbonate from their surrounding environment. Besides finding shelter in the weathered stone of these Karst caves, armored spiders in some ecosystems live on epiphytes, plants with an adopted support system, growing on another plant. Everything about these newly identified armored spiders seems fragile and almost unearthly.
Scientists working on these types of projects have long been leaders in collaborative activity including crowd-sourcing collaboratives. The discovery of new armored spider species in China contributes to the megadiversity maps; showing intricacies of biodiversity hotspots and calling attention to these concentrations of life worthy of careful management.
By Lawrence Shapiro