In 2005, Tracie Seimon, a biologist and self-professed arachnophobe, was flipping over rocks and looking for frogs high in the Peruvian Andes.
But beneath those rocks, she found something unexpected—and, at the time, a little unsettling: “We started seeing these little burrows with fuzzy little bums sticking out,” says Seimon, then at Columbia University. She convinced a colleague to help her extract and photograph one of the creatures—which turned out to be a two-inch-long tarantula.
Finding a tarantula at that elevation, more than 14,700 feet up, was a revelation. Normally, these hairy spiders aren’t too fond of arid, oxygen-deprived mountain air or subglacial terrain. But little did Seimon know, the South American hills were literally crawling with previously undescribed tiny tarantulas—including the one she’d just plucked from its burrow.
This spider not only turned out to be a new species—it lives at the highest elevation at which a tarantula has ever been found. And this discovery, along with several concurrent investigations, have turned up a total of seven new tarantula species in the genus Hapalotremus, as described in a recent study published in the Journal of Natural History.
After Seimon’s first find, she returned to that same spot in the Andes to look for more of the spiders. This time, though, she had to cajole the arachnids from their burrows on her own.
“These spiders are just beautiful,” she admits. “They have blonde legs, with a black body and a bright red spot on their back.”
Seimon sent photos of the first spider she found to tarantula expert Rick West, and several specimens to taxonomist Nelson Ferretti at Argentina’s National Scientific and Technical Research Council. After scrutinizing the creatures—and staring particularly hard at copulatory organs, which is, awkwardly, how spider species are often distinguished from one another—Ferretti found that the fuzzy-bummed spiders were indeed a previously unidentified species. Seimon named them Hapalotremus vilcanota, after the Andean mountain chain where they live.
Like H. vilcanota, the other six new Hapalotremus spiders are tiny. Many are no larger than a bottle cap, and most live at significant elevations, either in cloud forests or in rocky, mountainous environments. In other words, these are not the type of huge, jungle-dwelling tarantula people might normally imagine.
“They live in a lot of environments, habitats, and we need to make an effort to discover the new species,” Ferretti says. “They are amazing [and] more diverse than we thought.”
Several of Ferretti’s new spiders share H. vilcanota’s bright red spot, which turns out to house a type of hair the spiders defensively flick at predators (or curious scientists). Others, such as minuscule H. chasqui—a native of Argentina—are a beautiful, mossy green color. Locals, who accompanied the scientists on the often days-long treks into the mountains, know of the spiders and simply refer to all of them as ‘campo campo,’ a Quechua phrase of unclear origin.
“There are a lot of species that we don’t know yet,” Ferretti says. “Part of the importance of the taxonomic work is to try to understand the diversity before they disappear.”
Surviving Up High
Though it might seem surprising to find seven new species of fuzzy spiders in a relatively short period of time, the identifications are solid, says tarantula expert Robert Raven, a senior curator at Australia’s Queensland Museum who wasn’t involved in the paper.
“Tarantulas ‘own’ South America, and therein lies most of the world’s diversity of the group, so I am not at all surprised,” he says. “I am sure there will be more new species out there.”
That said, Raven is astounded that tarantulas are surviving at such elevations, where low oxygen levels and freezing temperatures—particularly at night, when the spiders hunt—characterize a rather unlikely habitat for the spiders.
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“Tarantulas in Australia are limited by the average daily winter temperature, which is well above anything these spiders handle regularly,” Raven says.
Ferretti, Seimon, and others plan to further study the spiders, and H. vilcanota, at least, should be fairly easy to keep an eye on: It inhabits a site that Seimon has been monitoring for 15 years, watching for the ways in which frogs and other critters respond to climate change.
“Frogs are expanding their range up into the deglaciated zone, where new habitats are forming on the hills of these receding glaciers,” she says. “I want to go and revisit the spider sites and see if they also are increasing the range.”