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Solving mysteries in the spider world

By: Dr Helen Smith, Category: Science, Date: 07 Jan 2014

Who doesn’t like a good mystery? Well, there are plenty to solve in the spider world!

Toxopsoides kathleenae

Carl Bento © Australian Museum

Our present mystery concerns a single male and female pair of spiders that were described in a new genus and species in 1973 in New Zealand. Strangely, not only did the stated collection locality not exist, but the spider, Toxopsoides huttoni, had never been recorded anywhere since!

After almost 40 years of confusion about this spider, detective work by New Zealand arachnologist Cor Vink and colleagues (including the specimens' collector) finally solved the locality mystery in 2011 after painstakingly working through old diaries, and the second mystery was at least partly solved when I found specimens of the species myself!

So, where did I find them, you ask? Not where you’d expect them! Rather than in New Zealand, I found the species actually occurs in south-eastern Australia! We had a few in our collections at the Australian Museum all along – but no one looked for them there! It’s perhaps not so surprising, as we knew for some time that related spiders were present in Australia, although nothing had been published about them. When I started looking at these relatives I finally found the ‘real McCoy’ as well.

The species had escaped detection by scientists for so long because they are only found by specialist hand collecting. They live under loose bark and move like greased lightning when disturbed. Once you go looking for them specifically they are easy to find. In fact, in my searching for these spiders, I discovered some closely related species, including Toxopsoides kathleenae, which I named after my mother. This species is common in northern Sydney and Central Coast of New South Wales.

While most of the spider mystery has been solved, the question remains: is Toxopsoides huttoni native to Australia and to New Zealand, or did the original collector happen across an accidentally introduced population? If introduced, are they still present in New Zealand? So many questions – I’ll pass them back to the New Zealand team for the rest of the answers!

Dr Helen Smith
Research Associate

 

More information:

Smith, H.M. (2013) The spider genus Toxopsoides Forster and Wilton (Araneae: Desidae: Toxopinae): new records and species from Australia. Proceedings of the Linnean Society of New South Wales 135: 19–43.

Vink, C.J., Hutton, R.W. and Fraser, C. (2011) The mysterious Waitetola, type locality of several New Zealand spiders. The Weta 41: 35–37.

Tags spiders, arachnology, biodiversity discovery, scientific research, Australian Museum Research Institute, science,