The rescue of 12 teenagers and their coach trapped in the Tham Luang caves transfixed the world in 2018, but memories are short. However, the team who rescued them will not be forgotten, at least by arachnologists, after four species of spiders were named in their honor.
The numerous caves that thread their way beneath the vast limestone Nullarbor are deeply hostile to life. No light penetrates to stimulate growth, but the area is a treasure trove for scientists who have found the bones of animals that became trapped there.
Today, even less life is present, since the land above is so forbidding its name is Latin for “no trees”. Nevertheless, Dr Mark Harvey of the Western Australian Museum told IFLScience that occasional floods wash plant matter into the caves, where cockroaches either feed on it directly or on the fungi that break it down. These then form the base of a food chain, the apex predators of which are spiders of the genus Troglodiplura.
Only two or three people have seen a live Troglodiplura, Harvey told IFLScience. Even the museum collections on which he conducted his research have DNA too degraded to answer many of the questions one might ask.
T. lowryi was named in 1969, and the few Troglodiplura specimens were lumped together under that name. The DNA Harvey could extract was sufficient to establish the existence of five species and their place in the broader spider family tree. Harvey thought that, given their habitat, it made sense to name the spiders after heroic cave explorers.
In Invertebrate Systematics Harvey named two of the new species T. beirutpakbarai and T. samankunani after the two Thai rescuers whose lives were lost in the attempt. Saman Kunan died of asphyxiation during the rescue, while a blood infection Beirut Pakbara caught at the time killed him 18 months later.
Australian cave diving experts Dr Craig Challen and Dr Richard Harris were called in as leading experts to assist the efforts, and survived to become joint Australians of the Year in 2019. Now they are immortalized with the naming of T. challeni and T. harrisi.
For some people, having a spider named after them would be a decidedly doubtful honor, but Harris (who was recently honored the same way) told IFLScience his suggestion was answered with delighted emails from both men. “Both are active explorers of cave ecosystems in Australia and are passionate about their conservation,” he said in a statement, adding to IFLScience that both men have explored the Nullarbor caves, undeterred by the idea of encountering the spiders that now bear their names.
Troglodiplura were initially thought to be most closely related to South American spiders, but Harris established they are part of the Anamidae, a large family of exclusively Australian spiders common on the west coast. In the great tradition of Australian species, the above-ground Anamidae confound their categorization by being part of the superfamily of trapdoor spiders, but seldom cover their burrows with trapdoors.
Troglodiplura almost certainly go further, not having burrows at all. In cave environments where they – and the creatures they prey on – are all blind, ambush strategies need to adapt. Instead, Harvey told IFLScience, Troglodiplura rely on the common spider hunting technique of hairs picking up vibrations that allow them to detect moving prey.
The differences between the species probably result from caves becoming disconnected, isolating the spiders until they evolved apart, rather than adapting to different niches, Harvey suspects.