New pirate spider species found on south Atlantic island

Credit: Liza Fowler/St Helena National Trust

On the remote and exotic island of St Helena, nestled in the Atlantic Ocean, scientists have made a fascinating discovery that reads like a tale from the high seas.

Here, two new species of pirate spiders, creatures that aggressively take over the webs of other spiders and claim them as their own, have been identified.

Unlike the pirates of lore, these spiders don’t sport eyepatches or wield cutlasses, but they are formidable predators in their own right.

For years, these unique spiders were mistaken for a common species found globally, including in the UK.

However, a recent study led by Danni Sherwood and published in the European Journal of Taxonomy has unveiled the true identity of these arachnids, marking them as distinct new species.

This discovery shines a spotlight on the need to protect St Helena’s cloud forest, a unique and threatened habitat where these spiders reside.

St Helena, a speck of land over 2,000 kilometers from the coast of West Africa, is a world unto itself. With a range of environments from lush forests to arid coasts, the island is a hotspot for unique biodiversity, especially in its cloud forests.

These forests, where trees capture water from the clouds, are crucial for the island’s water supply and are home to numerous endemic species.

The cloud forests of St Helena are under threat, with only fragments of the original forest remaining due to historical deforestation and invasive species.

Efforts to conserve and restore these habitats are underway, led by the UK government and various conservation organizations through the St Helena Cloud Forest Project.

Into this mix of conservation efforts, the discovery of the two new pirate spider species, Ero lizae and Ero natashae, adds urgency and excitement.

Initially thought to be instances of Ero aphana, a species common in western Europe, closer examination and DNA analysis revealed the spiders to be unique to St Helena.

This realization came as part of a broader project aimed at enhancing the DNA reference library for the island, facilitating easier biodiversity monitoring by the local community.

The differences between the newly identified species and their supposed counterparts were notable. Ero lizae features distinctive spike-like structures, while Ero natashae is considerably smaller.

Their genetic makeup also confirmed their status as separate species, a revelation made possible through advanced DNA sequencing techniques.

The significance of naming these species after Liza Fowler and Natasha Stevens, conservationists deeply involved in protecting St Helena’s invertebrates, underscores the personal and collective efforts dedicated to preserving the island’s natural heritage.

As research continues, these discoveries not only enrich our understanding of St Helena’s ecological complexity but also reinforce the importance of conservation work in safeguarding unique ecosystems and their inhabitants.

The tale of the pirate spiders of St Helena is more than just an addition to the catalog of biodiversity; it’s a reminder of the hidden treasures awaiting discovery in the world’s most isolated and vulnerable environments.

As efforts to study and protect these new species unfold, they contribute to the broader narrative of conservation and discovery on this remote island.

The research findings can be found in European Journal of Taxonomy.

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