A rare and elusive spider has made the comeback of the quarter-century in the United Kingdom, as a great fox-spider was spotted by Surrey Wildlife Trust (SWT) creeping about in a Ministry of Defence (MOD) training area in Surrey. The sighting marks the first time this thought-to-be-extinct-in-the-UK spider has been seen since 1993, clocking in an on-the-lam record of 27 years. Not bad.
The finding, while a surprise, was no accident, as spider enthusiast and SWT member Mike Waite has long been searching for the enormous spider. Having spent many hours over the last two years scanning for the great fox by moonlight, he was delighted to come across an unidentified but promising clutch of spiderlings on MOD land managed by the Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Trust. Hot on their trail, he eventually found several mature males and one female great fox-spider, which was 55 millimeters (2.2 inches) in diameter including its big, hairy legs.
As you can see from the detailed photo above (supplied to IFLScience by the SWT), these spiders have enormous peepers that grant them excellent eyesight. With two large eyes on top of the head (two at the front and four smaller eyes just above their mouth), they have wrap-around vision thanks to the eight eyes spread across their cephalothorax.
Known by the species name Alopecosa fabrilis, they’re a speedy and well-camouflaged group of spiders and one of the largest of the wolf-spider Lycosidae family. They hunt by night, much like their namesake, and chase down their prey to catch them on the run rather than constructing a web to trap them. Their victims include beetles, ants, and smaller spiders, which they inject with venom, liquifying their internal organs.
"The prefix ‘Great’ doesn’t seem to do it justice, maybe it should be the Fabulous, or Fantastic Fox-Spider,” said Nick Baker, a naturalist, TV presenter and president of the British Arachnological Society, in a press release. “Even if the backstory of its rarity and its rediscovery wasn’t taken into count, this spider is mega. It’s about as handsome as a spider gets, it's big and now it’s officially a member of the British fauna again. The rediscovery of the great fox-spider is indeed the most exciting thing to happen in wildlife circles for quite some time.”
The UK is littered with such MOD sites, whose diversity and enormity make them tremendous hubs of biodiversity. They’re protected from agricultural intensification and urban development, rendering them a vital sanctuary for many of the country’s rarest and most endangered species and habitats. Other species that have benefited from these sites in the UK include the sand lizard, smooth snake, Dartford warbler, nightjar, silver-studded blue butterfly, and marsh clubmoss.