Archives

The discovery of Charinus israelensis, a new whip spider from Israel

When I was a kid I used to spend hours in the Israeli outdoors, looking for insects and arachnids in hopes to familiarize myself with as many arthropod species as possible. I was so darn good at finding small critters that soon enough friends requested to tag along to see what I could unearth during a short afternoon hike. My parents recognized my growing passion and got me the natural history “bible” at that time – the 12 volumes of Plants and Animals of the Land of Israel: An Illustrated Encyclopedia. I studied it carefully, trying to set goals to find certain species, which led me on excursions throughout the country. Yet one arachnid seemed to remain out of reach.

Charinus israelensis, a new species of whip spider in Israel

Charinus israelensis, a new species of whip spider in Israel

It looked like a cross between a mantis and a spider, with one long pair of appendages. It was an amblypygid, a whip spider. The book listed only a single species occurring in Israel, Charinus ioanniticus, very rare. It featured a tiny photo, followed by a large illustration on the opposite page, a replication of the photo. In the days before the internet, that was my only reference for this arachnid group.

Amblypygi in: Plants and Animals of the Land of Israel: An Illustrated Encyclopedia

Amblypygi in: Plants and Animals of the Land of Israel: An Illustrated Encyclopedia, Vol. 2 Arachnids. For nearly a decade this was my only reference for information about whip spiders.

I was determined to see a live one, but I always failed to find them. I kept looking at those pages in hopes to memorize every aspect of the animal, making sure I can confirm its identity in case I stumble upon one. Years have passed and I gave up on finding one in the wild. I did get a chance to see a live specimen during my high school days though, in one of the visits I paid to Pinchas “Pini” Amitai, the man who took the original photo in the book. Little did I know that 20 years into the future I would be involved in discovering a new species of whip spider living in Israel.

This discovery is not recent news. We found the new species over five years ago, and the formal description was published last year. The media intended to feature the story, but unfortunately a former president in Israel passed away on the same week the paper was published and there was no interest in a story about an obscure arachnid living inside caves in Israel. Despite that, I waited. The discovery is an important one, and I was hoping our new species could still make an appearance in the news. And as you can imagine, I am still waiting. Well, as the old saying goes – if you want something done, you have to do it yourself.

So let me tell you the story of this cute arachnid. Back in 2012 I stumbled upon a photo of a whip spider from Israel in one of my social media newsfeeds. The photo was taken by Dr. Eran Levin during a cave survey for his research about bats’ hibernation sites. Since I had an approaching trip to Israel I contacted my friend and asked if he would share the location, because I was still hoping to see and document a wild whip spider in my home country. We chatted for a while, the location was a bit unexpected for amblypygids in the area, but a few months later I found myself crawling through a tight opening into the warm cave. And indeed they were there, happily roaming on the walls, waving their magnificent long legs everywhere.

A juvenile of Charinus israelensis walking on the wall in one of the caves

A juvenile of Charinus israelensis walking on the wall in one of the caves

Molts hanging from the cave's ceiling are a good sign for an active whip spider population.

Molts hanging from the cave’s ceiling are a good sign for an active whip spider population.

Charinus israelensis cleaning its leg

Charinus israelensis cleaning its leg. This specimen lost two of its legs in fights with others (see example below). They will grow back the next time it molts.

I took some photos and happily went home. When I inspected the photos later, something did not sit right with me. I still had a vivid memory of the photo and illustration in the book from my childhood. But now, I could also use information online for confirmation. The amblypygid species known from Israel, Charinus ioanniticus, has well developed median eyes. It almost looks like it is crossed-eyed. How cute.

Charinus ioanniticus' big smile. See the tiny beady eyes? Adorable!

Charinus ioanniticus’ big smile. See the tiny beady eyes? Adorable!

I looked at my photos, and none of the animals had median eyes. What is going on here?

Charinus israelensis, note the absence of median eyes

Charinus israelensis, note the absence of median eyes

Charinus israelensis can have big smiles too

Charinus israelensis can have big smiles too

In all other visible aspects the whip spiders looked like C. ioanniticus, yet the absence of eyes was enough for me to suspect that I might be dealing with a new species. I made some calls, went back to collect some specimens, and started the long process of verifying and describing the species with colleagues (you can find our paper on my publications page). I invested my energy and personal funds into that research. For me it was a mission to put the spotlight on this exciting new find. We named it Charinus israelensis. I became heavily involved with the general public and posted requests in forums and social media groups for any records or sightings of whip spiders in Israel. Slowly but surely, I started receiving responses from various people located throughout the country. Some of which mentioned whip spiders that found their way into homes, others were reported from natural caverns. It was even more interesting to visit some of those places with the people who made the sightings, and witness the whip spiders’ populations together with them. I learned a lot about caves in Israel, and how much we still don’t know about these habitat systems. But the best experience for me while searching for the new species C. israelensis was to discover new unrecorded populations of the known species, C. ioanniticus. And more than anything, I suddenly realized that they are not at all that rare as mentioned in the old encyclopedia. They are just extremely cryptic, remaining hidden in tight crevices and coming out in the darkest of nights. No wonder people never see them.

Charinus ioanniticus from a newly recorded population in the Carmel Mountain Ridge of Israel

Charinus ioanniticus from a newly recorded population in the Carmel Mountain Ridge of Israel

Why is this exciting? There are two main reasons. The first one is that this discovery doubles the Amblypygi fauna for Israel. It may not sound much, but jumping from one species to two is actually a big deal. It has implications on our understanding of food webs in caves, and these unique arachnids may give further incentives to protect and conserve cave habitats in Israel. The second reason is that the loss of eyes in cave animals (troglomorphism, a term associated with adaptation for life in dark caves) is an interesting topic for studying the evolution of traits within a phyllogenetic lineage. There are already several examples of blind Charinus whip spiders from around the globe, which may lead to fascinating research in the future. In the meantime, I continue to keep live specimens of both Charinus species from Israel, learning a ton about their biology in the process.

A freshly molted Charinus israelensis shows spectacular coloration

A freshly molted Charinus israelensis shows spectacular coloration. The color turns reddish-brown after some time.

Two females of Charinus israelensis fighting

Two females of Charinus israelensis fighting. Whip spiders have complex communication based on movements of their antenniform legs. Some encounters turn hostile, in this case because the bottom female was gravid.

Charinus israelensis female carrying an egg sac

Charinus israelensis female carrying an egg sac

Some of the adult whip spiders that were collected in the beginning of the research are still alive and kicking! Quite impressive for a small arachnid, and seems like they can even outlive some of the more “conventional” pets.

Because I eat, sleep, and breathe whip spiders, my friend Peggy Muddles aka The Vexed Muddler made this awesome portrait of mine with C. israelensis (check out more of her fabulous stuff here)

artwork by Peggy Muddles

“Whip spiders are the coolest arachnids that will never hurt you”

By the way, this weekend (Sunday August 27th, 10am-5pm) the University of Guelph is holding a “Bug Day” at the Arboretum Centre. Come for a fun day out and learn about arthropods. I will have a table with whip spiders, so please drop by and say hi. I will also have some framed whip spider molts with me so please come and check them out!

New species of Charinus in Belize

I am happy to announce that our new paper, describing two new species of whip spiders (Amblypygi) from Belize, was recently published (the paper can be downloaded here). This culminates work that started in 2013, in collaboration with Gustavo Miranda and Alessandro Giupponi.

Charinus reddelli from Waterfall Cave, Cayo District, Belize

Charinus reddelli from Waterfall Cave, Cayo District, Belize

The new species were found during the BugShot Belize workshop at Caves Branch Jungle Lodge and its surroundings. The smaller species of the two, now named Charinus belizensis, was discovered under a fallen log during a night hike, concealed inside the decomposing wood and sharing the space with Diplocentrus maya scorpions and platydesmid millepedes. The second species was found within several nearby cave systems, hiding under stones and running on the sandy bottom of the cave. As soon as I found these whip spiders I knew I had something that probably no one has seen before. These were new, undescribed species. Charinus species have been described from almost every continent, they are well-recorded in South America, but so far no species have been described from Central America. Only two reports mention presence of the genus Charinus in Central America: one report from Panama mentions an epigean species with well-developed eyes. I knew the Charinus that I found were different species due to their “blindness” – the two new species have no median eyes, an adaptation for life in closed dark spaces, such as caves and deep crevices. The other report from 1982 is by James Reddell, mentioning a whip spider “troglobite of uncertain generic affinities” in the Footprint Cave in Belize, probably the same species that I found in the very same cave, three decades later. We therefore decided to pay tribute to James Reddell for this discovery and for his enormous contribution to the study of the arachnids by naming this new species after him: Charinus reddelli.

The entrance to Waterfall Cave, where specimens of the new species C. reddelli have been found.

The entrance to Waterfall Cave, where specimens of the new species C. reddelli have been found.

Charinus reddelli, a freshly molted specimen besides its molt in Waterfall Cave

Charinus reddelli, a freshly molted specimen besides its molt in Waterfall Cave

It is not surprising that these species have not received any attention up until now. To begin with, they are very small. The leg span of the bigger species, C. reddelli, is just over 2.5cm. They constantly take shelter inside decomposing wood (C. belizensis) or in rock crevices in caves (C. reddelli). Also, to the untrained eye they may appear as juveniles of the much bigger Amblypygi genera found in the same area, Paraphrynus and Phrynus. As such small arachnids, one might wonder what they feed on. It is possible that C. belizensis feeds on termites and other soft arthropods found inside the wood cavity, whereas C. reddelli was observed feeding on cave crickets nymphs and was even spotted taking down another arachnid – a cave schizomid. Moreover, the live specimens that I keep in captivity have been found to be very fond of eating isopods, so it is possible that they are an important component in these species’ diet. Another interesting observation relates to their breeding strategy. Whip spider females are excellent mothers and demonstrate a high level of maternal care, carrying and protecting the eggs and then later carrying the hatched babies for a while until they can fend for themselves. As small-sized arachnids, Charinus species confront a problem. If they go the same path as the other whip spider genera, producing several dozens of tiny offsprings, then they might run into survival challenges, as the tiny babies must track down and hunt for even smaller prey, and at the same time deal with predators. Instead, C. reddelli‘s egg sac contains only 4–10 eggs, and the hatching whip spider babies are quite large. This ensures that the offspring have a slightly better start in life as they can exploit the common prey size in their surroundings.

Whip spiders females are good mothers and Charinus reddelli is no exception. Here, a female carrying her newborn baby on her back. Three other babies are still in the process of hatching under the mother's abdomen.

Whip spiders females are good mothers and Charinus reddelli is no exception. Here, a female carrying her newborn baby on her back. Three other babies are still in the process of hatching under the mother’s abdomen.

Charinus belizensis fresh after molting before pigmentation appears. Found under a fallen log in Caves Branch forest.

Charinus belizensis fresh after molting before pigmentation appears. Found under a fallen log in Caves Branch forest.

It took a long process to obtain the proper permits, collect, export, and describe the new species, in which I received tremendous help from Ella Baron from Caves Branch Jungle Lodge. The important thing is that now these two small arachnids are known, they have a name and a valid presence, which will make it easier to protect them and their habitat. I hope that in the near future more species of Charinus will be discovered in Central America, filling the gap in their known distribution.

Killing in the name of

About two weeks ago, Piotr Naskrecki, whose blog The Smaller Majority I routinely follow (and you should too), posted a nice story about his encounter with the world’s biggest and heaviest living spider, the South American Goliath Birdeater (Theraphosa blondi), while surveying a rainforest in Guyana. The blogpost gained respectable attention from everyone who appreciates a good natural history piece, but only when picked up by a “viral-content-spreading” website it started getting the full public attention it deserved. Or did it? To be honest, I do not know which website was first in line to spread the story of a “puppy-sized spider with foot-long legs” but it wasn’t long before the internet and the media snatched the story and made it spread like wildfire. The result was interesting but also horrifying to watch – almost within a day the internet was flooded with various reports and interpretations of the original blogpost, some of which were poorly written and included embarrassing inaccuracies. The story quickly climbed up in popularity and a few days ago was ranked #14 in the fastest spreading online news, along with other “popular” news stories such as the Ebola outbreak. Needless to say, the majority of those reports shamelessly used Piotr’s photographs on their own websites without permission.

A small insert about content turning viral: One simply cannot predict what will become viral on the internet. I have tried to do this myself and failed, when photographs that I thought were decent received no attention at all, whereas crappy photos that I took out of laziness just before I went to bed were instantly favored and shared. Want an example? Here are two:

Mother amblypygid (Paraphrynus raptator) protecting her babies

Mother amblypygid (Paraphrynus raptator) protecting her babies

 

Small-scaled Godzilla - baby ambush bug (Phymata monstrosa)

Small-scaled Godzilla – baby ambush bug (Phymata monstrosa)

 

When comments started pouring in on the tarantula article, the usual mix of positive (“amazing animal!”) and negative (“kill it with fire!”) responses could be seen. But among those there was a strong stream of comments calling for justice, as it was revealed that the spider was eventually collected for research and deposited in a museum collection. At first I did not know where this information originated from, after all the original post by Piotr did not include any statement about collecting the spider. Later that day I found it, in the closing paragraph of this report.

Not a South American Goliath Birdeater, but close enough; an adorable Ecuadorian Pinktoe Tarantula (Avicularia huriana)

Not a South American Goliath Birdeater, but close enough; an adorable Ecuadorian Pinktoe Tarantula (Avicularia huriana)

 

Spiders are sweet, I agree. This bashing response, however, points to an alarming problem. First, I do believe these comments truly come from people who care about nature and the environment. So why am I writing this? Because I think it is unclear to the public what scientists actually do, and in the case of biologists, why they collect data and specimens in the field and what happens to such specimens further along the road. The funny thing is that there are many blogs out there, run by scientists, trying to take a public outreach approach by explaining the routine and difficulties scientists face in their daily work. Among these blogs there are quite a few that discuss the topic of collecting insect specimens for research, like Biodiversity in Focus and Beetles in the Bush to name a few. However, I do not see people submitting the same type of preaching comments (promoting the insects’ rights to live) in these blogs. The reason is quite depressing: the general public, the same people who were exposed to the Goliath Birdeater story via the various viral news websites, do not read blogs about scientific research, even though these blogs are there for the public in the first place. Here is where Piotr’s blog is doing so well; it brings easily digestible information about the wonders of earth, in a language that can be understood by any person, without excessive technical details or jargon. The same can be said about his books. In addition, everyone loves a good photograph, and Piotr’s photos are nothing short of stunning.

So why bash a scientist for killing a single spider for research?

Piotr gave an excellent response to this issue in his subsequent post (now integrated within the original Goliath Birdeater post), I really could not have said it better myself, so make sure you head over to his blog to read it. I will just add a few things. For start, I do not think the accusing commenters are aware of Piotr’s significant contributions to nature conservation. Unfortunately, the finger is fast on the trigger keyboard, and it has become extremely easy to criticize any person one does not agree with on the internet. But the problem is much worse than trolling. Most people do not realize that the only reason they know what they know about nature, whether it is related to animals, plants or their environment, is because some scientist spent a lot of time in remote areas collecting this information, and then took the liberty of publishing it for the greater good. Without scientific knowledge no one would even know the spider in Piotr’s post is a Goliath Birdeater, it would just pass as a legendary giant arachnid. The only way to properly identify a species or describe a new one is to collect it and compare it to related species that were… also collected and killed previously. You see, from a scientific point of view, this work will never end. There are so many species out there, with many of them undescribed or unknown. Be thankful and considerate towards those who sacrifice so much of themselves not only to deliver these majestic creatures all the way to your computer screen at the comfort of your home or office, but also invest enormously towards protection of their natural habitat from destruction.