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.

The Biologists and Activists Fighting to Save Endangered Tapirs in Costa Rica

Stephanie Vermillion
Stephanie Vermillion

Costa Rican biologist Esteban Brenes-Mora was just 5 years old the first time he saw a tapir, and he immediately fell in love with the large, unusual animal. "The tapir was walking on the beach close to Corcovado National Park," he says of the moment that helped impact his future career. "It was a highlight for me; it led me to do what I do now."

Twenty-five years later, Brenes-Mora is a tapir expert and founder of Nai Conservation, a Costa Rican organization that is working to save the endangered species from its worst enemy: humans. Tapirs have been around for some 35 million years, but deforestation, highways through its habitats, and poaching have caused their numbers to drop significantly. It's estimated that the population of the Baird's tapir as decreased by more than 50 percent in just the last three generations. And in turn, what hurts the tapirs hurts the environment.

A Baird's tapir resting on a beach in Costa Rica's Corcovado National Park.
A Baird's tapir resting on a beach in Costa Rica's Corcovado National Park.
Stephanie Vermillion

"Tapirs are considered gardeners of the forests; they plant seeds and have a big impact on enriching the soil," Brenes-Mora explains. "The tapirs are even saving us from climate change. There's evidence from the Amazon that when tapirs are gone from certain forests, carbon sequestration in those forests decreases."

Experts have warned that tapirs, and specifically the Baird’s tapir that Brenes-Mora saw on that beach as a child, may soon be classified as critically endangered if current trends are not addressed.

Thankfully, Brenes-Mora has a plan.

 

I’m in Costa Rica on assignment to create an awareness-building film about the endangered tapir species. My colleague Alisha and I have just wrapped one week documenting the work of Nai Conservation, the local tapir research and conservation organization Brenes-Mora founded in 2015, and we're putting the final touches on our film in one of the most heavily tapir-populated (and protected) habitats, Corcovado National Park.

Of course, seeing a tapir in the wild would add an important element to our film, but even after a full week with the passionate, driven team behind Nai Conservation, we haven't seen even one.

This isn't surprising, though; few locals ever encounter the elusive tapir. The Baird's tapir—Tapirus bairdii, or known locally as danta in Spanish—is one of four tapir species in the region. It's indigenous to Central America and is a mammalian relative of the rhinoceros and horse, though it looks much more hog-like than either of the two (it has no relation to either boars or pigs). It is largely nocturnal and spends most of its day resting, hidden in the rainforests before foraging for fruits and berries in the afternoon. This makes spotting one in the wild even more rare, but Brenes-Mora and the Nai team want us to see a tapir as badly as we do.

Biologist Esteban Brenes-Mora is the founder of Nia Conservation.
Biologist Esteban Brenes-Mora is the founder of Nai Conservation.
Stephanie Vermillion

Before launching Nai, Brenes-Mora spent six months in Malaysia after getting his biology degree, working with RIMBA, an NGO studying tigers, flying foxes, and other native wildlife. But since seeing that tapir on the beach when he was young, it had been his childhood dream to work with tapirs, and a fellowship with the Zoological Society of London gave him that chance. According to Brenes-Mora, the fellowships are meant to provide early-career conservationists and biologists an opportunity, through funding and mentorship, to get a foothold in their desired field. For him, that meant tracking tapirs through the highlands of Costa Rica's Talamanca Mountains.

One day in 2015, Brenes-Mora and a friend reached Cerro de la Muerte—Costa Rica's "mountain of death," the highest point on the mountain range. They were discussing creating a logo for the fellowship project, but Brenes-Mora’s friend saw longer-term potential.

"He was like 'whoa, you have more than a logo, you have more than a project, you can actually start something here,'" Brenes-Mora remembers.

And start something he did. The idea quickly evolved into the full-scale conservation project, Nai. (In the indigenous Bribri language of Costa Rica, nai means danta, or tapir.) Under Brenes-Mora's leadership, the organization is bringing together people with a variety of skills to raise awareness and preserve the tapir species. Nai's biologists and veterinarians perform critical, in-the-field research that informs tapir conservation action. The organization's teachers educate children on the tapir species as part of its "Salva-Dantas" program, which prepares youth for a lifetime of helping the tapir. And graphic designers and artists like Mauricio Sanabria, an artist who joined the team as a twentysomething in 2017, create eye-catching signs and other content to help spread the word about Nai—and ultimately the tapir—online and across local communities.

Over the past four years, this seed of a project has grown into a grassroots movement. The team's bright yellow "tapir crossing" stickers—the symbol of support for Nai—are popping up in restaurants, homes, and businesses throughout the country. One delicious example is in Costa Rica's capital city of San José, where Lucía Cole and Mauricio Varela, the founders of Tapir Chocolates, donate a portion of all profits to Nai.

And all the way down in the southwestern-most Osa Peninsula some 200 miles away, two of Nai's biggest supporters, Steven Masis and Deyanira Hernández, plan to guide us through the jungle in search of a tapir.

The founders of Tapir Chocolates donate a portion of their profits to Nai to aid in the conservation of Costa Rica's Baird's tapirs.
The founders of Tapir Chocolates donate a portion of their profits to Nai to aid in the conservation of Costa Rica's Baird's tapirs.
Stephanie Vermillion

Masis and Hernández lead wildlife tours across the tropical Osa Peninsula, including through the country's popular, secluded Corcovado National Park. Both in their early thirties and with backgrounds in biology, Masis and Hernández join Nai and its partners on virtually all research trips through the remote, 160-square-mile park. Of all the places to spot tapirs in Costa Rica, Corcovado's dense, foggy rainforests—accessible only by boat or tiny plane—are the best bet. But even with their exceptional tapir-sighting success rate, these two activists don't take those sightings for granted.

Any encounter with the endangered tapir is rare and special. Due to threats like poaching (its hide is highly valuable on the black market), habitat loss, road kills, and trafficking, populations are plummeting throughout its Central American habitat. At this point, Brenes-Mora estimates only 1500 tapirs remain in Costa Rica, and research suggests that the total population of Baird’s tapirs in the entire region is only around 3000.

The possibility of losing the tapir species is problematic for planet Earth. The tapir holds a unique ecological "superpower" that’s becoming more important by the second: the ability to help combat climate change. They can eat over 200 pounds of fruit, plants, and seeds a day, and in the process, they essentially clear the forest floor, till the ground with their rummaging, and spread the seeds that they eat through transference and droppings. And they've been doing this for millions of years.

 

Despite the challenges, the tapir movement is not all doom and gloom. Earlier that week, I joined Nai for an afternoon installing "tapir crossing" road signs in central Costa Rica's Cerro de la Muerte mountains, and saw several indicators of success throughout the day.

For one, even erecting these street signs is progress. The team used trap-photo data and subsequent tapir and road traffic models to project exactly where traffic accidents occur most frequently, and they have used that data to convince the transportation department and local communities to allow tapir-crossing signs at high-risk sections along the busy Inter-American Highway, which runs right through tapir habitat.

The Nai Conservation team installs tapir crossing road signs in Costa Rica.
The Nai Conservation team installs tapir crossing road signs in Costa Rica.
Stephanie Vermillion

"All of our decisions are based on actual data," Brenes-Mora says. "Based on that data, we start making decisions and lobby to include our ideas into policy.”

Brenes-Mora, a pragmatic biologist who has formed strong working relationships with key government leaders and NGOs, is hesitant to claim the decrease in road kills as a success just yet. A couple of years is not enough time to impact the population of a large mammal, he says (especially one with a 400-day gestation period for a single calf—repopulating the species will take a very long time).

But four years is enough time to create a widespread, engaging movement among locals. From Brenes-Mora's perspective, this unity surrounding the tapir is the ultimate success.

"Without people, it doesn't matter if we have protected areas, it doesn't matter if we're protecting the populations," he says. "Without engaging people, we won't be able to secure the species in the long term."

While Nai is his brainchild and tapirs are his lifeblood, Brenes-Mora doesn't want the future of Nai—or, more importantly, the tapir species—to depend solely on him.

"I'm always asking myself 'what will happen when I die?'" he muses. "I don't want tapirs to be unattended if something happens to me. I don't want to be the tapir guy, I want Nai to be the tapir group. I want all the members of the team to be the tapir people. It's hard to do that, but we're on the right track."

With the future in mind, Brenes-Mora is priming people like Nai research lead and team veterinarian Jorge Rojas, artist Mauricio Sanabria, and dozens of other dedicated team members to help carry the tapir mission forward. They tour and give talks, like at a recent weeklong event they hosted at the University of Costa Rica with the Costa Rica Wildlife Foundation, where Brenes-Mora and Rojas spoke at a symposium for students, professors, and activists about threats to tapirs, their importance to the environment, and how to best help and protect them.

That's why our trip down to Corcovado National Park is a milestone for the movement—the plight of the tapir is generally less known than that of the whale or tiger or rhino. Raising awareness about the tapir is one of its best chances at survival.

 

Alisha and I had originally planned to take the two-day Corcovado trek on our own, but after some consideration (and likely Brenes-Mores's urging, given the rough terrain we'd be facing—i.e. jungle off-roading), Sanabria joined us for a chance to see the animal he's been working so hard to save. For all the work he has done as a researcher and activist and the time he's spent in the field, he has yet to see a tapir in the wild.

Suddenly, our naturalist guide bursts from the forest yelling, "Un tapir! Un tapir!," and Sanabria takes off running. Despite the fact that Masis and Hernández see tapirs more regularly than most, they're leading our 100-yard blitz down the beach with him—smiling their "Christmas morning grins" every step of the way.

Finally, after much huffing and puffing, we've made it. We've caught up with our guides and are now face to face with the remarkable tapir we drove hundreds of miles to see.

Nai Conservation researcher and activist Mauricio Sanabria with a tapir on the beach in Costa Rica's Corcorvado National Park.
Nai Conservation researcher and activist Mauricio Sanabria with a tapir on the beach in Costa Rica's Corcorvado National Park.
Stephanie Vermillion

We're awestruck and on adrenaline highs, but the tapir couldn't be less interested in the five of us. He offers a polite nod between super-sized mouthfuls of vegetation, but he has business to attend to—like strolling along the shoreline, urinating in the ocean, and then passing out in the sun.

Sanabria locks eyes with the now-sleepy tapir, and in a moment of near-solitude with the elusive creature, Sanabria can feel the magnitude of the work he's been doing.

"It's touching to finally see what you're working for," he says. "It's a little sign of hope."

A Baird's tapir on a beach in Costa Rica's Corcovado National Park.
A Baird's tapir on a beach in Costa Rica's Corcovado National Park.
Stephanie Vermillion

Is There An International Standard Governing Scientific Naming Conventions?

iStock/Grafissimo
iStock/Grafissimo

Jelle Zijlstra:

There are lots of different systems of scientific names with different conventions or rules governing them: chemicals, genes, stars, archeological cultures, and so on. But the one I'm familiar with is the naming system for animals.

The modern naming system for animals derives from the works of the 18th-century Swedish naturalist Carl von Linné (Latinized to Carolus Linnaeus). Linnaeus introduced the system of binominal nomenclature, where animals have names composed of two parts, like Homo sapiens. Linnaeus wrote in Latin and most his names were of Latin origin, although a few were derived from Greek, like Rhinoceros for rhinos, or from other languages, like Sus babyrussa for the babirusa (from Malay).

Other people also started using Linnaeus's system, and a system of rules was developed and eventually codified into what is now called the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN). In this case, therefore, there is indeed an international standard governing naming conventions. However, it does not put very strict requirements on the derivation of names: they are merely required to be in the Latin alphabet.

In practice a lot of well-known scientific names are derived from Greek. This is especially true for genus names: Tyrannosaurus, Macropus (kangaroos), Drosophila (fruit flies), Caenorhabditis (nematode worms), Peromyscus (deermice), and so on. Species names are more likely to be derived from Latin (e.g., T. rex, C. elegans, P. maniculatus, but Drosophila melanogaster is Greek again).

One interesting pattern I've noticed in mammals is that even when Linnaeus named the first genus in a group by a Latin name, usually most later names for related genera use Greek roots instead. For example, Linnaeus gave the name Mus to mice, and that is still the genus name for the house mouse, but most related genera use compounds of the Greek-derived root -mys (from μῦς), which also means "mouse." Similarly, bats for Linnaeus were Vespertilio, but there are many more compounds of the Greek root -nycteris (νυκτερίς); pigs are Sus, but compounds usually use Greek -choerus (χοῖρος) or -hys/-hyus (ὗς); weasels are Mustela but compounds usually use -gale or -galea (γαλέη); horses are Equus but compounds use -hippus (ἵππος).

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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