Pelican 'Assassin' Spiders Discovered in Madagascar Are Stealthy Ninjas With Beak-Like Fangs

Eriauchenius milloti is one of the 18 new species of pelican spiders from Madagascar described by the scientists. Hannah Wood, Smithsonian

After studying hundreds of specimens from Madagascar, a scientist has discovered 18 new species of one of the most bizarre spiders on the planet: the spider-eating "pelican spider" that uses salad tong-like jaws to snatch prey.

Arachnologist Hannah Wood at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History obtained hundreds of pelican spider bodies to get a better understanding of these little-known creatures. She catalogued 46 different species among the specimens, and found that 18 had not yet been described. A review of the new species was published in the journal ZooKeys.

This pelican spider is dangling its spider prey upside-down using its chelicerae after capturing it. These spiders also occur in Australia and South Africa; however, the species with the longest “necks” occur in Madagascar. All of the pelican spiders that Wood described live only in Madagascar. Nikolaj Scharff

Pelican spiders are a group of arachnids known for their pelican-like profiles and taste for spider-meat. The most striking pelican spiders, with the longest jaws, only live in Madagascar.

Wildlife in Madagascar is difficult to study because of the island's remoteness, but many species here live nowhere else in the world. That's because Madagascar is considered a biodiversity hotspot, meaning that over 90 percent of the wildlife exist only in that region. "These spiders attest to the unique biology that diversified in Madagascar," Wood said in a press release.

And unique they are. Unlike some other arachnids, pelican spiders don't make webs. Instead, the spiders, also known as "assassin spiders," actively stalk their prey at night and attack them with their fanged mouth parts. As their victim struggles and potentially tries to attack their captor, the pelican spider keeps them at arm's length as they die from an injection of deadly venom.

Because Madagascar's wildlife is so poorly studied, the California Academy of Sciences launched an arthropod inventory in 2000, filling it with spiders and other invertebrates collected from throughout the island. Wood studied the pelican spiders in that collection to make her discovery.

The first pelican spider ever discovered, in 1854, was encased in 50-million-year-old amber. When scientists first saw the bizarre creature they thought it was a long-gone, archaic creature. But when intrepid scientists discovered live members of this group of spiders, they were deemed "living fossils."

Like the coelacanth, assumed extinct for millions of years, pelican spiders have survived millennia while barely changing at all. They are also "Lazarus taxa," meaning that they were formerly thought to be extinct.

According to the press release, Wood said that these spiders will help biologists understand how these creatures diversified, and the history of their evolution. It also highlights the importance of protecting Madagascar as a spot of untapped potential for discovering new species.