KUCHING: Canadian biologist and jumping spider specialist Dr Wayne Maddison believes that his team has found a new species of spider from the hispo genus in Sarawak.
Speaking at a public awareness talk on jumping spider diversity in Sarawak at Sarawak Biodiversity Centre (SBC) yesterday, he said hispo spiders are commonly found in Madagascar.
“There are three known species found outside of Africa, until now. As far as I know, this one is new to science. It is the first of this subfamily in Borneo.”
Maddison’s student and team member Edyta Piascik found the first one, a grey adult female, on a tree in Mulu. They later found an adult male in Lambir.
According to Maddison, they still have to study their specimen in detail when they return to Vancouver.
Both Maddison and Piascik gave talk to about 35 people from various organisations and members of the public.
Maddison is a professor at the University of British Columbia and is scientific director of Beaty Biodiversity Museum.
His fascination with jumping spiders began when he was 13, and he has made it his mission to travel to poorly-known rainforests to document the many still-unknown species before they are gone.
While the term ‘jumping spiders’ may conjure up images of big hungry spiders waiting for an excuse to pounce on you, Maddison said that these tiny creatures are commonly found around the house and garden.
“I found six different species around this building while I was waiting for my turn to talk,” he told his audience.
Jumping spiders are identified by their characteristic eye pattern — four of their larger eyes are in front of their heads, while four smaller ones are positioned on the sides to give them what is equivalent to the human peripheral vision.
Maddison said some of these spiders might have blind spots directly behind their heads.
“You can tell these by the sudden head jerk they make when they detect something behind them,” he said. “Their visual system is better than a cat’s, but not as good as a dog’s.”
Fewer than 100 jumping spiders of Borneo were previously found and described, some from as long as 120 years ago.
“We found an estimated 175 species on our trip,” Maddison said, adding that there may be at least 400 species in the whole of Borneo.
Jumping spiders do not spin webs to trap their food, he said. Instead, the mostly carnivorous spiders hunt like cats, pouncing on their prey.
“They do produce silk. They use it to spin houses, and to attach to something in case they miss what they were jumping at!”
With a body length ranging from 1mm to 15mm, these critters are built for their environment whether it’s tree trunks, the forest floor or foliage.
Piascik described how tree trunk spiders tend to be flatter, perhaps to fit onto cracks in the tree bark. The delicate-looking foliage dwellers use their long legs to navigate between leaves, while the ground dwellers that blend in with dead leaves are more compact with stubby legs.
To find such small spiders, the team used beating sheets to catch specimens they dislodge by shaking overhead foliage or brushing off tree trunks. For ground dwellers, it was necessary to kneel or lie down on the rainforest floor and sift through dead leaves.
“Our favourite method is to just sit down and wait for something to move,” Piascik joked.
Piascik is a MSc graduate student at the University of British Columbia. Her project with jumping spiders concerns their ecological adaptation and the evolution of their communities.
Maddison said now was a good time to document spiders because most forests were still intact and species that exist now might very well be extinct in the future.
“Five hundred years from now, we’re going to wish that we can come back to this moment,” he said. “Unlike dinosaurs, spiders are too tiny to leave behind fossils.”
He said that their aim was to build a photographic guide to jumping spiders of Sarawak and reveal the beauty of these spiders.
There are also not enough people in the world studying spiders. While there are around 40,000 species of spiders described, only a dozen or so people are actively studying them.
“We also want to promote further study and growth of local expertise,” he said, adding that there is almost no data on the jumping spiders of Sarawak.
Maddison said that he chose to come to Borneo because tropical rainforests of South East Asia have been little collected, and this is especially true for Borneo.
“For jumping spiders, the pattern is particularly striking, because not only are the individual species local, but whole evolutionary groups tend to be local, having evolved and diversified in just one continental area,” he wrote in his blog shortly before his spider hunting trip to Sarawak.
“It means that when you go to an unexplored area, the species that you find might not only be new, but very new — distantly related from everything else known. Who knows what strange thing we might find?”