Biologists have described 18 new species of pelican spider, a bizarre family of spider-hunting spiders – half awkward-looking, half terrifying – that are so obscure scientists assumed they were extinct for many decades.
The discovery came through studying hundreds of pelican spiders in the thick forests of Madagascar and painstakingly sifting through specimens left in the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. As explained in a new study published in the journal Zookeys, the researchers managed to successfully sort the pelican spiders into 26 different species, 18 of which have never before been scientifically described before.
One of these new species, Eriauchenius milajaneae (the odd-looking guy pictured above) was named after lead researcher Hannah Wood's daughter and is the only known species that could be found on a remote mountain in the southeast of the island.
Pelican spiders are a favorite cult figure among scientists due to their strange appearance. On top of having super-gangly legs, they also have long mouthparts that stuck out from the "head," a little bit like the angled beak of a pelican, hence the name. They are also vicious assassins who loved to dine out on other spiders, using silk draglines to track down their prey and flick out their extravagant spiked appendages to impale them.
"These spiders attest to the unique biology that diversified in Madagascar," Wood, the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History's curator of arachnids and myriapods, said in a statement. You can also find pelican spiders in Australia and South Africa, although it's often said that the ones with the longest necks can be found in Madagascar. This distribution across the Southern Hemisphere indicates that the evolutionary ancestors of pelican spiders were dispersed through the breakup of the supercontinent Pangaea around 175 million years ago.
"I think there's going to be a lot more species that haven't yet been described or documented," Wood predicted.
Pelican spiders are practically "living fossils," Wood explained. The first spider of this kind was discovered in 50 million-year-old amber during an expedition in 1854. Combined with the fact that they look uncannily similar to species in the fossil record from 165 million years ago, the scientists assumed they were an extinct family. Nevertheless, biologists managed to come across a living specimen in Madagascar in 1881.
Almost 140 years on, they now have another 17 buddies to join their ranks.