Biggest fossil spider, new discoveries


The largest known fossil spiders (left: male, right: female) belong to a newly described species of extinct arachnids, Mongolarachne jurassica. Credit: Paul Selden

From LiveScience:

Biggest Spider Fossil Now Has a Mate — But It’s Complicated

By Megan Gannon, News Editor

December 16, 2013 02:44pm ET

A few years ago, scientists uncovered the largest-ever fossil of [a] spider: a female representative of a never-before-seen species that was buried in volcanic ash during the age of the dinosaurs.

Now the researchers say they have found an adult male spider to match, but the discovery complicates the original interpretation of the species. The scientists have proposed a new genus — Mongolarachne — to describe the extinct creature.

When researchers first found the female spider in northern China, they named it Nephila jurassica, putting it in the Nephila genus of golden silk orb-weavers, which still exist today and have been known to ensnare birds and bats in their huge wheel-shaped webs. [Ewww! See Photos of Bat-Eating Spiders in Action]

“It was so much like the modern golden orb weaver,” said Paul Selden, a paleontologist with the University of Kansas. “We couldn’t find any reason not to put it in the same genus of the modern ones.”

With soft, squishy bodies, spiders don’t typically turn up in the fossil record, but several hundred have been found in the volcanic deposits at the Daohugou fossil beds in Inner Mongolia, Selden said.

Volcanic ash is famous for preserving more ephemeral pieces of the past, from bodies buried in their death poses at Pompeii to 2.7-billion-year-old raindrop impressions found in South Africa. Researchers think these spiders were likely swept to the bottom of a sub-tropical lake and covered in fine ash after a volcano blew its lid.

Unlike insects, spiders are typically pretty good at staying away from water, Selden explained.

“It would take something like a volcanic eruption to blow them into the bottom of the lake and bury them,” Selden told LiveScience. “That’s the sort of scenario we imagine.”

And in that volcanic rock layer at Daohugou, the researchers found another spider that looked remarkably similar to Nephila jurassica, except it was male. There were several clues in the newfound fossil, however, that suggest this ancient arachnid just doesn’t fit the bill for Nephila.

First of all, the male was remarkably quite similar in size to the female, with a body that measures 0.65 inches (1.65 centimeters) long and a first leg stretching 2.29 inches (5.82 cm).

“This is rather strange,” Selden said. “In the modern orb weavers, there is quite a lot of sexual dimorphism,” with a huge female and a tiny male.

Compared with Nephila male spiders, this newfound fossilized male had more primitive-looking pedipalps — the sex appendages between a spider’s jaws and first legs that it uses to transfer sperm to the female. And it had a more feathery hairstyle: The fossil was preserved so well that Selden could look at imprints of the spider’s hair under an electron microscope. Instead of one or two scales along each bristle, Selsen said he saw evidence that this spider had “spirals of hairlets” along the strands covering its body.

The researchers think the fossilized spiders may actually be more closely related to spiders in the Deinopoidea genus, also called ogre-faced spiders. Arachnids in this group are considered orbicularians. They also make orb-shaped webs, but their silk is more “woolly,” Selden said, with a stickiness that’s more like Velcro than glue.

Revising their original labeling of the giant fossilized female spider, the researchers created a new genus and species name for the pair: Mongolarachne jurassica. Selden and colleagues also created a branch for Mongolarachne on a phylogenic tree, placing it quite close to the stem where orbicularians originate.

The study was published online Dec. 7 in the journal Naturwissenschaften.

Follow Megan Gannon on Twitter and Google+. Follow us @livescienceFacebook Google+. Original article on LiveScience.

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Good Chinese rare bird news


This video from Britain says about itself:

Snow Bunting at GodrevyWildlife in Cornwall.

Snow buntings have a rare relative in East Asia, about which there is news.

From BirdLife:

New breeding sites found for Asia’s rarest bunting

By Martin Fowlie, Thu, 05/12/2013 – 11:11

Three previously unknown breeding sites of Asia’s rarest bunting have been discovered by a team from the Beijing Bird Watching Society working with BirdLife’s China Programme.

Rufous-backed Bunting Emberiza jankowskii, also known as Jankowski’s Bunting has declined drastically because of conversion of its habitat to farmland, and it is now known only from a restricted area in north-east China.

In April and May this year, breeding buntings were found at six sites, including three new, in the Xing’an League of Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, China. At least 70 birds were identified, mostly singing males. At one previously known site near the Ke’erqin (Horqin) National Nature Reserve, the population had doubled to 41 birds since 2011 after the area was fenced to prevent livestock trampling in the breeding season.

In June 2012, BirdLife’s China Programme and the Hong Kong Bird Watching Society organised the first local workshop on the conservation of this species. Most of the recommendations have been implemented: production of education material; formation of a communication network of local government agencies, nature reserves and researchers; and surveys in suitable areas of sandy grassland with Siberian apricot bushes.

To further raise the profile of the bunting, a second workshop was held in November 2013, in Ulanhot, capital of Xing’an League. Key outcomes included agreements by the local government to work for the conservation of Rufous-backed Bunting and to provide information on Siberian apricot habitats to inform future surveys. The conservation of the species will be promoted during “Love Birds Week”, a nationwide event held every spring. Nature reserve staff and local volunteers will be trained to assist with surveys and conservation projects.

In addition, it has been recommended that Rufous-backed Bunting be listed as the official symbol of the Xing’an League. An award-winning documentary film by local wildlife photographers Mr Dong Guijun and Ms Du Shuxian will be used to promote this species within and outside China. Studies of the winter distribution of the Rufous-backed Bunting have been discussed with the National Bird Banding Center of China, including colour-ringing to monitor local movements.

“These discoveries are very encouraging. When new sites are found we must work with the local government and landowners to protect them” said Vivian Fu, Assistant Manager of the China Programme.

Terry Townshend, a BirdLife Species Champion, who has been campaigning for action for the species, attended the workshop and commented, “The outcomes of the workshop demonstrate a genuine commitment from the local officials in Xing’an to help protect and conserve this beautiful bird.  I am optimistic that, provided we can secure further support, Rufous-backed Bunting will be saved from extinction.”

This work has been aided by the Ernest Kleinwort Charitable Trust and Oriental Bird Club and is being undertaken with the support of the BirdLife Preventing Extinctions Programme.

If you’d like to help this important conservation action too please make a donation here.

Big spider from dinosaur age discovered


Nephila jurassica

From daily The Morning Star in Britain:

Super spider from the mists of time

CHINA: The largest fossil spider discovered to date has been unearthed in Inner Mongolia, scientists reported today.

The spider, named Nephila jurassica, is a relative of modern golden orb-weavers and was around the same size, with a legspan of 15cm. It lived 165 million years ago.

Golden orb-weavers are the largest web-weaving spiders in the world, spinning webs over a metre across.

Their diet includes bats and small birds.

See also here. And here.

A golden orb-weaver spider (Araneae: Nephilidae: Nephila) from the Middle Jurassic of China: here.

Spiders protect webs with decorations: here.

Spiders, Too, at Risk in Human-Altered World: here.