Jurassic spider fossils used to be extremely rare finds. The first was discovered in Russia and described in 1984—another was found three years later. But that remained the totality of the fossil record.
Then, in the twenty-first century, farmers in the area of Daohugou, China—just inside Inner Mongolia—began turning up Jurassic-period arachnids on a hillside. Because of the proliferation of these Chinese discoveries, these days a few hundred specimens are known to science.
“Village farmers dig pits to extract the fossils, which are mainly insects and the occasional spider or other animal, and experts from the university in Beijing travel there, usually during the New Year holiday, and sort through the finds,” says Paul Selden, professor of invertebrate paleontology with the department of geology at the University of Kansas.
Selden is part of a team that recently described the largest-known fossil spider ever unearthed. They report their findings in the latest issue of Naturwissenschaften.
This specimen’s body length is 1.65 centimeters, and its first leg length is 5.82 centimeters.
PART OF THE FAMILY?
“It’s unique because it’s intermediate between the more primitive kinds of the araneomorph, or ‘true’ spiders, and the well-known orbweavers that we see around us commonly today,” Selden says. “While it’s the largest known fossil spider, it’s not the largest spider, which is a Brazilian tarantula.”
The giant fossil spider is considered to be the male version of a female spider found a short time ago in the same locality, calledNephila jurassica. But because some of its physical characteristics are different from theNephilagenus, the latest discovery has spawned an entirely new scientific name.
“Because the male shows features that are not consistent with the placement of the species in Nephilaor, indeed, the family Nephilidae, the species was given a new genus name and a new family erected to accommodate the new genus,” says Selden, who also serves as the Paleontological Institute’s director at the university’s Biodiversity Institute.