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Spider Scientists Find 50 New Species


Google Australia, plus spider, and you might see references to regular spider rains. That's when millions of spiders literally fall from the sky. Yeah, there are a lot of spiders in Australia, and that makes it fertile ground for arachnologists. A team of spiders scientists have just discovered over 50 new species of spider in Cape York, Australia, this season. And joining us now from Brisbane, Australia, is Dr. Robert Raven, an arachnologist with the Queensland Museum who was part of the team. Welcome to the program.

ROBERT RAVEN: Thank you, Lulu.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So I'd like to hear about some of these spiders. I hear that you discovered a spider that can dive into water.

RAVEN: That's a big tarantula about the size of your face. And I was actually standing about chest deep in a creek that didn't have any crocs - crocodiles in it. And I was trying to get the spider out, thinking that they would normally do what they do - run up the bank. But instead, this one jumped straight out at me, between my chest and the water, and dived into the water. And it was a bit murky, but I - it went under - obviously went under the bank. And I took sticks and brushes and tried to get - froth it up and try to get the spider back out again. But it wouldn't come out. So eventually I went back and got another spider and this time had an insect net underneath it. So when it jumped, it jumped into the net. And then we took her back to the lab and thought, wonder what's it's going to do in the lab. And we put a big log in the - in a tank, and the log was partly out of the water, partly in. And the spider ran straight into the water, totally immersed, and remained there for at least four hours until we were too bored waiting for it to come up.


RAVEN: At least four hours, yes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Oh, my goodness. And so there's also a spider - which is actually incredibly beautiful if you could describe it - called the peacock spider that does a dance.

RAVEN: Yes, we got this amazing peacock spider. The males have this thing where they can - they've got a fold around their body which extends out and forms like a peacock - beautiful little thing. They're about the size of two sugar grains stuck together. But you can actually see them flashing away in the sun, with these beautiful colors, as they go into the courtship behavior with the female. And, of course, if they get the wrong female, then they're dinner.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter) So their dance better be pretty good, or if not, they're not going to survive.

RAVEN: Exactly.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So 50 new species of spider. It seems incredible to think - you can literally, I think, just, you know, poke a stick and find a new species of spider.

RAVEN: Well, the thing about this area is that, in the most active period, it's inaccessible. So you just can't get in there. So - and the place where we were, Laura, it's, like, a weigh station. And people don't stop there very much. So one of the things that we find with these things - it's a big piece of territory, and each area has its own unique fauna. And, you know, we did a survey a couple of years ago, just 60 kilometers north of this point. And there's a whole different set of species but many, many more in this one.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: How many times have you been bitten by a spider?

RAVEN: Oh, I don't know - lost count now. I usually get bitten about twice a year - so probably in the order of about a 100, so far.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, I have to ask you how you came to devote your life to studying spiders.

RAVEN: Yes, it was exactly because of the bite aspect. I had - and still have - a fear.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Wait, wait, wait, you're afraid of spiders?

RAVEN: Yes. Well, I have a fear that my father gave me because he was a mining engineer. And he would go into disused mine shafts, lighting flaming newspapers to bring down the webs. And the spiders would fall down the back of his neck and so on. And I was told this at too young an age, and I developed a fear. And I...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'm scared now hearing that story.

RAVEN: Yeah, well, it's - remembering it brings it back, too.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Dr. Robert Raven, an arachnologist from Queensland Museum in Australia, thank you so much.

RAVEN: You're welcome.


SCARED WEIRD LITTLE GUYS: (Singing) Redback, funnel web, blue-ringed octopus, Taipan, Tiger snake, Adder, Box Jellyfish, big shark just waiting for you to go swimming at Bondi Beach. Come on. Come to Australia. You might accidently get killed. Your blood is bound to be spilled. With fear, your pants will be filled. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.