10 of the World's Strangest Spiders

Wirepec // iStock
Wirepec // iStock

All spiders have eight legs, but that’s where most of their similarities end. Scientists frequently discover new species with unexpected talents—be it a flair for cartwheels or the ability to turn itself into a disco ball. Researchers have also found plenty of specimens that are just plain weird-looking. Here’s a list of 10 fascinatingly freaky arachnids.

1. CEBRENNUS RECHENBERGI // THE FLIC-FLAC SPIDER

A native of the Erg Chebbi desert in southeastern Morocco, Cebrennus rechenbergi—also known as the flic-flac spider—has the remarkable ability to cartwheel its way out of danger. When threatened by a predator, it will leap off the ground and do a series of high-energy somersaults to make a quick exit. An alarmed flic-flac spider can tumble forward at a rate of 6.6 feet per second—twice as fast as its maximum walking speed. If pressed, it can even cartwheel uphill. Such talents did not go unappreciated by this spider’s discoverer, bionics expert Ingo Rechenberg, who has built a somersaulting robot based on the flic-flac’s locomotion.

2. BAGHEERA KIPLINGI // A JUMPING SPIDER

Bagheera kiplingi spider
Maximilian Paradiz // Wikimeda Commons // CC BY 2.0

Those who have read Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book may have already figured out that this species was named after the panther who helps raise Mowgli. But its pop culture connection is not Bagheera kiplingi’s only claim to fame. It has a plant-based diet, unlike nearly all other spiders, which subsist predominantly on meat. B. kiplingi feasts on the nutritious nubs of Central American acacias, which the trees produce to feed their colonies of guard ants. The ants protect the trees from predators, but the spiders have learned how to swoop in and steal the nubs without providing any symbiotic benefit. The spiders will also eat nectar and ant larvae, and when times are tough, they’ve been known to practice cannibalism.

3. ARACHNURA HIGGINSI // THE SCORPION-TAILED SPIDER

Arachnura higginsi spider
Peter Woodard // Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Two phobias for the price of one! Found only in Australia, the scorpion-tailed spider is so named because adult females have a long, thin appendage on the tip of their abdomens. (Males and juveniles lack this structure.) The females can arch this bendable tail over their backsides, which gives them the appearance of irate scorpions and prompts would-be attackers to keep their distance. But it’s all an act: The tail cannot sting and Arachnura higginsi is mostly harmless to humans.

4. CAEROSTRIS DARWINI // DARWIN’S BARK SPIDER

The male Darwin’s bark spider is eager to please. Really, really eager. The diminutive males exhibit what some scientists have called “a rich sexual repertoire” to their much larger mates. During sex, males nibble on their partners’ genitals or immobilize them with a web of silk before getting busy. Males will also detach their own sexual organs inside their mates to prevent females from mating with others. Researchers muse that this unusual behavior grew out of males’ survival instinct: A female Darwin’s bark spider is liable to eat her partner after mating.

5. GENUS SCYTODES // SPITTING SPIDERS

Scytodes thoracica spider
Fritz Geller-Grimm // Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Using webs to catch prey is all well and good, but it almost seems tame compared to what spitting spiders do to their victims. To subdue a target, the killers take aim and fire twin streams of venom-drenched silk out of their fangs. At a top speed of 62 miles per hour, the fibers move in a wide-arced, zig-zag pattern. In addition to being coated with poison, this silk drips with a super-sticky glue. Once victims are enmeshed, the glue-covered fibers will shrink, constricting the unfortunate prey. Eventually, the spitting spider will administer a venomous bite and put the trapped entrée out of its misery.

6. GENUS DOLOMEDES // FISHING SPIDERS

Hydrophobic coats and a knack for exploiting surface tension allow these predators to walk on water. Fishing spiders lurk in North America, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand. To hunt tadpoles, aquatic insects, and even small fish, many species of fishing spiders will splay themselves over the surface of freshwater lakes or streams. Then, using hundreds of ultra-sensitive leg hairs, they monitor aquatic vibrations. When prey swims by, the spider homes in on its precise location and dives for the victim, sometimes as much as 18 centimeters below the water’s surface.

7. CYRTARACHNE INAEQUALIS // A “DISCO SPIDER”

This little fellow—which arachnologist Joseph Koh believes is Cyrtarachne inaequalis, a member of the Cyrtarachne orb-weaver spider genus—made a vivid impression on photographer Nicky Bay, who captured its singular light show on film. The orb-weaver’s abdomen exhibits a pulsating movement that appear to show its internal organs working under a translucent membrane, Bay writes. Scientists have suggested that the spiders’ display attracts prey or scares off predators, but how and why C. inaequalis puts on its tiny disco act remains a mystery.

8. GENUS MYRMARACHNE // ANT-MIMICKING JUMPING SPIDERS

Myrmarachne ant spider

Found in tropical and temperate zones all over the world, Myrmarachne spiders pretend to be ants—which predators view as aggressive and not worth the effort—to stay alive. With their elongated heads and hourglass-shaped thoraxes, the arachnids look a lot like various ant species (their Latin name even means “ant-spider”). To help sell the illusion, they’ll wiggle their front legs like an ant’s writhing antennae. Of course, a good actor knows when to break character. If certain Myrmarachne species come across predators that eat ants, they’ll drop the ruse.

9. SUPERFAMILY PALPIMANOIDEA // ASSASSIN SPIDERS

Assassin spiders are so named because most of them eat smaller, sometimes poisonous spiders. To keep their food from biting back, Palpimanoidea have evolved long, skinny, giraffe-like necks. Their tiny heads sport huge sets of jaws. When an assassin spider finds a meal, those jaws impale the target and swing forward at a 90-degree angle. That keeps victims a safe distance away from any of the assassin spider’s sensitive body parts. Before long, the skewered prey will die on one of the distended jaws. Then the feasting can begin.

10. GENUS SELENOPS // SPIDERS THAT GLIDE

Our planet is home to more than 40,000 different kinds of spiders, and luckily for arachnophobes, none of them can fly. But at least one genus can free-fall like champion parachutists. In a 2015 study, biologists documented this unusual behavior by systematically dropping 59 tree-dwelling spiders of the genus Selenops from “either canopy platforms or tree crowns in Panama and Peru.” Ninety-three percent of these arachnids steered themselves towards nearby trees to land safely on the trunks. The researchers speculate that such gliding descents happen all the time in nature. After all, the spiders predominantly reside in trees—and the ability to parachute from one trunk to the next would be a huge asset.

A Newly Discovered Species of Prehistoric Shark Was Named After the Video Game Galaga

Velizar Simeonovski, Field Museum
Velizar Simeonovski, Field Museum

Dinosaurs weren’t the only fearsome creatures who called North America their home millions of years ago. The recent discovery of pointy, fossilized teeth in rock that had been left over from an excavation in the ‘90s has led scientists to declare a new—yet long-extinct—shark species, Smithsonian reports.

North Carolina State University professor Terry Gates, who led the study published in the Journal of Paleontology, named the shark species Galagadon nordquistae after its triangular teeth, which he thought resembled the shape of the battleships in the video game Galaga. The second part of the name pays homage to Karen Nordquist, the retired chemist and volunteer at Chicago’s Field Museum who found the fossils in the first place.

Galagadon lived in what we now know as South Dakota’s Hell Creek Formation, an area known for having rocks and fossils that date back at least 65 million years to the Cretaceous Period. It’s the same place where scientists unearthed Sue the T.rex—the most complete skeleton of its species ever discovered. Not only did the shark live at the same time as Sue, but it also “lived in a river Sue probably drank from,” the Field Museum, where Sue can be seen on display, said in a press release.

In fact, the excavation that led to Sue’s discovery in 1990 is what enabled this latest find. The sediment that encased Sue’s bones, known as matrix, was removed and stored in an underground unit at the Field Museum. Scientists and museum volunteers have only recently begun to sift through it in search of smaller fossils.

Shark tooth fossils
Terry Gates, Journal of Paleontology

Sharks’ skeletons are primarily made of cartilage, which deteriorates over time. But the tiny teeth, measuring just a millimeter wide, helped scientists figure out what the shark looked like. "Galagadon was less than 2 feet long—it's not exactly Jaws," Pete Makovicky, one of the study’s authors, said in a statement.

The species is believed to be similar to bamboo sharks, which can be found today in southeast Asia and Australia. This connection surprised researchers, who are now questioning their understanding of the area where Sue was found, which was thought to be a lake formed from a partially dried-up river. This latest discovery, however, indicates that there “must have been at least some connection to marine environments," Makovicky says.

[h/t Smithsonian]

12 Animals Named After the Noises They Make

A bobolink, said to have been named for the call it makes
A bobolink, said to have been named for the call it makes
iStock.com/PaulReevesPhotography

If you were asked to name an onomatopoeic word, then you’d probably come up with something like boom, boing, whizz, smash, or tick-tock. They’re all perfectly good examples, of course, but onomatopoeia is actually responsible for a lot more words than you might think. For instance, etymologists believe that pebble might have been coined to imitate the sound of flowing water. Laugh might have been invented to sound like, well, a laugh. Owl, crow, and raven are all descended from Old English words (ule, crawe, hræfn) that were meant to imitate the owl’s hoot and the crow’s and raven’s squawks. And the 12 names listed here are all meant to represent the bizarre whoops, chips, peeps and wows made by the animals they describe.

1. AI

An ai in Venezuela
Fernando Flores, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

As well as being a contender for the world’s shortest animal name, ai (which should be pronounced “ah-ee") is another name for a three-toed sloth, especially the pale-throated sloth, found in the far northeast corner of South America. Although sloths are generally fairly docile, the name ai is apparently meant to resemble the high-pitched cry they can make when they’re agitated or alarmed.

2. BOBOLINK

Bobolinks can produce very long and surprisingly complex songs, but their usual go-to noise is a brief four-note call that’s commonly said to sound like someone saying “Bob-o-Lincoln.” The name Bob-o-Lincoln eventually was shortened to bobolink in the 1800s.

3. CHIPMUNK

One theory claims that the name chipmunk is an English interpretation of a native Ojibwe word, ajidamoo, meaning something like “red squirrel.” But because chipmunks were originally known as “chipping squirrels” in English, it seems more likely that the name is actually an English invention, in which case it’s probably meant to describe their short “chipping” call.

4. CHOWCHILLA

A chowchilla
Seabamirum, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

The chowchilla is type of logrunner, a small thrush-like bird, that’s native to Queensland, Australia. For a bird not much larger than a robin, the chowchilla has a particularly noisy call that to early European colonists and explorers apparently sounded like “chow-chilla-chow-chow.” The chowchilla was also once known as the “auctioneer bird,” apparently because (with a bit of imagination) its song sounds like an auctioneer's incessant chattering.

5. CHUCK-WILL’S-WIDOW

A cousin of the better-known whippoorwill, the chuck-will’s-widow is another species of nightjar (a family of nocturnal birds related to swifts and martins) native to the southern United States and much of Central America. Dozens of different species of nightjar are found all over the world, and they all share incredible camouflaged plumage and strange whooping calls—so if the “whippoorwill” makes a noise that sounds like poor Will is about to be whipped, then the “chuck-will’s-widow” makes a sound like poor Will’s widow is about to be chucked.

6. GANG-GANG

A gang-gang cockatoo
iStock.com/JohnCarnemolla

The peculiar croaking noise made by the gang-gang cockatoo of southeast Australia has been likened to everything from a creaking wooden door to a cork being pulled from a wine bottle. However you might want to describe it, the onomatopoeic name gang-gang was adopted into English from a Wiradhuri name that was supposed to imitate it.

7. HOOPOE

Hoopoe bird on a branch
iStock.com/shurub

The hoopoe is a striking-looking songbird whose name is meant to imitate its strange whooping call. Their bizarre appearance has also helped make them the frequent subject of myths and folktales over time: the Ancient Egyptians worshipped them and drew pictures of them inside the pyramids; the Romans believed that they were filthy creatures because they fed on dung and frequently nested in graveyards; and at least one old European legend claims that the younger birds look after the older ones in their old age, restoring their youth by plucking out dying feathers and licking blindness from their eyes.

8. KATYDID

A katydid on a purple flower
iStock.com/blindsquirrelphoto

Katydids make their loud and often three-syllable “ka-ty-did” call by rubbing their forewings together. They hear each other, incidentally, with ears located on their front legs. There are more than 6000 species in the katydid family, found on every continent except Antarctica.

9. MACAQUE

The name macaque was borrowed into English via French in the late 17th century, but it’s thought to originally derive from an old Bantu name, kaku, for any of the numerous monkey species found in West Africa. The name kaku is in turn supposed to be imitative of a monkey call, and it’s from the plural form of kaku—namely makaku in Bantu—that the word macaque eventually evolved.

10. PEEWIT

A type of plover with characteristic green plumage and a long curled crest, the northern lapwing has a number of nicknames in English—including the peewit, the swipe, the peepsweep, the teewhit, and the teeack—every one of which is supposed to emulate its noisy alarm call. The common name lapwing, incidentally, refers to the bird’s tactic of feigning a broken wing in order to distract predators from their nest when they feel threatened.

11. PIET-MY-VROU

Piet-my-vrou is another name for the red-chested cuckoo, a species of cuckoo found across much of sub-Saharan Africa. Cuckoos are well known for their instantly recognizable call, and it’s the loud three-note descending call of the piet-my-vrou (which literally means “Pete my wife” in Afrikaans) that gives it its name.

12. WOW-WOW

A wow-wow, or agile gibbon

Gibbons are famous for their lengthy and surprisingly complex songs, and the whooping or “wowing” call of the wow-wow or wawa—a local Indonesian name for either the agile gibbon or the silvery gibbon—is no exception. Sadly both species are now listed as endangered, due to their localized distribution and on-going habitat destruction.

This story first ran in 2014.

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