When University of Kansas researcher Paul Selden first examined an unknown species of arachnid found in 100-million-year-old Burmese amber from Myanmar, the specimens had some familiar characteristics.
"We've not found fossils before that showed this, and so finding this now was a huge (but really fantastic) surprise". What will likely scare the vast majority of arachnophobes around the globe is that scientists have uncovered creepy tailed spiders in amber. Alongside modern spider traits such as a silk-producing structure called a spinneret, it possessed a remarkably primitive feature: a whip-like tail covered in short hairs that it may have used for sensing predators and prey. Chunks of it were purchased by paleontologists, who found in the amber many well-preserved spiders - some of them with long, nearly scorpion-like tails. A pair of papers out today detail how this 100-million-year-old discovery, preserved in amber, fits into the spider evolution story...and the ways it doesn't.
Russell Garwood, co-researcher of the Study, from The University of Manchester stated, "We have known for a decade or so that spiders evolved from arachnids that had tails, more than 315 million years ago".
Researchers have previously found creatures from between roughly 380 million and 290 million years ago that looked like tailed spiders but did not have spinnerets, so the new find adds a piece to the puzzle of the spider's evolutionary lineage.
Some 100 million years later, blocks of amber containing their fossilized forms wound up on the desks of two scientists in China.
The fossil sheds light on the origins of modern spiders and their ancient ancestors. This latest collection of finds ended up with two different research groups at the Nanjing Institute of Geology and Palaeontology. Each spider was about 3mm long with a tail measuring up to 5mm.
The studies appeared Monday in the peer-reviewed British journal Nature Ecology & Evolution.
The species is being called Chimerarachne, a riff on Chimera, a fire-breathing hybrid creature found in Greek mythology. The creature fills the gap between ancient arachnids with tails and true spiders, Ricardo Perez-De-La-Fuente of the Oxford Museum of Natural History told the BBC. Spiders use silk for a variety of reasons, including augmenting their living space and protecting their eggs.
Explaining the tail, Selden says: "Any sort of flagelliform appendage tends to be like an antenna".
"All four specimens are adult males, which would have been roving around looking for females at this point in their lives", Selden said.
"Chimerarachne could be considered as a spider".
"It challenges our view of how we define 'spider'". It sports fangs and rear spinnerets for producing silk.
This exciting new find confirms a prediction made a few years ago by Selden and colleagues when they described a similar tailed arachnid, which resembled a spider but lacked spinnerets. Some argue that spinnerets were the key innovation that allowed spiders to become so successful; there are almost 50,000 known spider species alive today.
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