New species of trapdoor spider with ‘turrific’ burrows discovered in Queensland

05 April 2019

Four new species of trapdoor spider, known for their unique burrow entrances, have been discovered by scientists from Queensland Museum and Griffith University.

And in a world first, the scientists have been able to positively identify these species of spider solely from the appearance of their burrow entrances, which has never been done before in a group of closely related trapdoor spider species.

The spiders belong to the ‘turrificus-group’, so named because they construct burrows which project from the soil like little towers and the name ‘turrificus’ is formed from the Latin stem ‘Turris’ meaning ‘turret or tower’.

The Queensland spiders were described by Griffith University Ph.D. student Jeremy Wilson under the guidance of Queensland Museum arachnologists and co-authors Dr Robert Raven and Dr Michael Rix.

The spiders were discovered in south-eastern Queensland between the Sunshine Coast localities of Montville and Maleny, north to the Gympie region.

Minister for Science and Minister for the Arts Leeanne Enoch congratulated the Queensland Museum for its ongoing contribution to science discovery.

“Once again Queensland Museum researchers are at the forefront of international science news,” Minister Enoch said.

“The new species of trapdoor spider will lead to a wealth of valuable scientific knowledge.”

Mr Wilson said each of these new species constructs a unique type of turret-burrow, which in a world-first, had allowed the spiders to be identified based on the appearance of their burrow alone.

“Trapdoor spiders belong to a group called the Mygalomorphae - spiders in this group don’t make aerial webs like people see in their garden; instead they construct deep silk-lined burrows which sometimes have a hinged door at the top,” Mr Wilson said.

“To identify a trapdoor spider species, you usually have to dig the spider up and look at it carefully under a microscope, which can involve killing the spider, but what’s amazing about these new species is that all four can be identified based on the appearance of their burrow, so you don’t have to dig up or disturb the spiders at all.”

Mr Wilson said that many other trapdoor spider burrows are very well camouflaged, but these ones stick out “like a sore thumb”, with some species constructing burrows with ornate doors involving strange patterns and shapes.

“There must be an evolutionary reason why these spiders construct these peculiar burrows; we don’t know what that is yet, but naming each species is the first step to learning about their mysterious lives,” Mr Wilson said.

Burrows are pivotal to the survival of mygalomorph spiders, as they regulate humidity, provide protection from predators and allow the spiders to ambush their prey.

All four of the new species appear to have very small ranges, with each species known from only one small rainforest patch, or a few adjacent patches, amongst land otherwise cleared for agriculture or development.

“It’s amazing that strange new species like these occur within one of Australia’s most developed regions, and it just goes to show the conservation importance of even small patches of remnant forest,” Mr Wilson said.

“There are really interesting animals in those patches that we still don’t know about, and for some of these species, the small rainforest patches that many of us drive past each day are their only home.”

Queensland Museum arachnologist Dr Robert Raven said given the unique structure of the burrows these new spiders make, he was surprised they had only just been described.

“When we made the connection between the unique burrow entrances and the trapdoor spiders, it was an amazing discovery and something I have not seen in my career studying spiders until now,” Dr Raven said.

“This is a remarkable discovery by Jeremy and will go a long way to helping identify these specific species of trapdoor spiders in the future.”

Queensland Museum Network CEO Dr Jim Thompson said he was continually impressed with the work the museum’s arachnology department undertakes.

“Dr Robert Raven heads Australia’s most active arachnology unit at Queensland Museum and under his guidance young arachnologists such as Jeremy have been given the opportunity to make some significant scientific discoveries,” Dr Thompson said.

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