Velvet spiders emerge from underground in new cybertaxonomic monograph

May 23, 2012
Dozens of social velvet spiders participate in a mass attack on a beetle. Credit: Photograph by Teresa Meikle

Velvet spiders include some of the most beautiful arachnids in Europe and some of the world's most cooperative species. Social species can be very abundant in parts of tropical Africa and Asia with conspicuous colonies dotting the landscape. Social colonies may consist of hundreds of closely-related individuals that participate in dramatic mass attacks on prey (Figure 1) and care for their young. The ecology of these social species is fascinating and has been the subject of several landmark scientific papers. The study was published in a special issue of the open access journal ZooKeys.

By contrast, most kinds of velvet spider are rarely encountered. Most keep well hidden or dig burrows and live underground. Because of the cryptic habits of most velvet spiders, scientific knowledge of this spider family is uneven to say the least. The name velvet spider accurately describes the dark and shiny appearance of these spiders. Some species also have brightly colored highlights, such as the red, white, and black ladybird spiders of Europe and North Asia (Figure 2). With the exception of one species from Brazil, velvet spiders live in Europe, Asia, and Africa.

This is a colorful ladybird spider. Credit: Photograph by Pavel Krásenský

The international team assembled to advance about velvet spiders included people and institutions from the Netherlands, Denmark, United States, Czechia, Hungary, and Iran. International collaboration in taxonomic research was the goal of the EDIT (European Distributed Institute of Taxonomy) Integrated Research grant, which provided most of the funding for this project. The team assembled a hefty library of images documenting the anatomy of all the major kinds of velvet spider. This included both portrait-like color photographs and showing details of the spigots that these spiders use to make silk. San Francisco-based artist Giovanni Maki contributed beautiful drawings of the male genitalia. The project also used to reconstruct the evolutionary history of velvet spiders. The DNA data confirmed that one particularly enigmatic species belongs to a new genus (Figure 3).

In recognition of the fact that this velvet spider lives underground, the new genus has been named Loureedia in a whimsical salute to the musician who began his distinguished career leading the 60s rock band "The Velvet Underground."

This is the velvet spider Loureedia. Credit: Photograph by Martin Forman

In spite of all the progress that this new monograph represents, there is much more work still to be done. Taxonomy is a fundamental science, and advances in it can promote research in other areas. Some of the most obscure groups of velvet spiders from the Mediterranean and Southern Africa will now be more easy to identify and study. This is thanks to the progressive approach taken by publisher Pensoft. The full-color monograph is freely available for download through the web site of the journal ZooKeys. Pictures and descriptions also appear on the wiki web site Species-ID and an interactive map of the specimens used in the study is explorable using Google Earth (please note you must have it installed in order to view the map). So this publically-funded research on a remarkable and often beautiful group of spiders will be freely available not only to scientists but to the public as well.

Explore further: Aging white lion euthanized at Ohio zoo

More information: Miller JA, Griswold CE, Scharff N, Řezáč M, Szűts T, Marhabaie M (2012) The velvet spiders: an atlas of the Eresidae (Arachnida, Araneae). ZooKeys 195: 1-144. doi: 10.3897/zookeys.195.2342

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Flying jewels spell death for baby spiders

Mar 02, 2012

Spider flies are a rarely collected group of insects. Adults are considered important pollinators of flowers, while larvae live as internal parasitoids of juvenile spiders. Eight genera are recorded in Aust ...

Male wolf spiders cannibalize females

Apr 13, 2011

(PhysOrg.com) -- While most people are familiar with the fact that many species of female spiders eat their male counterparts, new research findings published in the Biological Journal of the Linnean Society show h ...

Male black widows look for well-fed mates

Jul 07, 2011

(PhysOrg.com) -- According to a new study published in Animal Behaviour, a male black widow spider is able to identify a female spider that has eaten well by simply taking a few steps on the web she spins. ...

Recommended for you

A vegetarian carnivorous plant

Dec 19, 2014

Carnivorous plants catch and digest tiny animals in order and derive benefits for their nutrition. Interestingly the trend towards vegetarianism seems to overcome carnivorous plants as well. The aquatic carnivorous bladderwort, ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.