Described by a number of media outlets as “the size of your face” a new tree-dwelling tarantula discovered in Sri Lanka has awed arachnophiliacs and terrified arachnophobes alike. But the new species, named Raja’s tiger spider (Poecilotheria rajaei), is likely Critically Endangered according to the scientist that discovered it in northern Sri Lanka.
“I would say that this species is Critically Endangered due to deforestation (the adults prefer well established old trees with naturally occurring tree hallows, where [their] spiderlings are found under bark peels, and small hollows),” Ranil Nanayakkara, co-founder of Sri Lanka’s Biodiversity Education and Research, told mongabay.com. He added that the species was also threatened by “wanton killing by villagers due […] fear of these animals and also certain pesticides and insecticides.”
In fact, the first time Nanayakkara ever saw the new species was in 2009 when a villager showed him a dead specimen that the local community had killed. Loss of habitat has forced a number of the spiders to invade the village of Mankulam, where they have been discovered hiding out in the hospital. Although venomous, the spiders are not thought to be lethal to humans.
Researchers believe the new species in only found in northern Sri Lanka, and—despite the 8-inch spread of its body—has likely gone unnoticed by scientists for so long due to war in the region. The species was described recently in the British Tarantula Society Journal.
The scientific team named the spider rajaei after local policeman, Michael Rajakumar Purajah, who proved indispensable to the team.
“[Purajah] helped me tremendously while in was in Mankulam with my field studies and was by my side 24/7/365,” Nanayakkara says.
Despite it’s formidable appearance, Nanayakkara says this spider in particular, and spiders in general, are often misunderstand.
“[Spiders] are natural bio-control agents, say for an example if there were no spiders, we would be bombarded by insect pests, as spiders on a whole feed on millions of insects in a day. The world over. Also their venom could well yield medicinal properties to cure modern aliments (studies are being carried out by me and my team),” he says, adding that, “Last but not least they have every right to this earth just like us humans, and they are wonders of nature.”
The island-country of Sri Lanka, which is just smaller than Ireland, has been in the news a lot recently for new and rediscovered species. Last month researchers announced the discovery of eight new species of frogs from one forest in Sri Lanka, while another frog was rediscovered after missing for over 150 years. The forests and biodiversity of Sri Lanka were hit hard by thirty years of civil war and today are increasingly imperiled by rapidly-expanding industrial agriculture. Only around 1.5 percent of Sri Lanka’s primary forest remains and scientists believe around 20 frogs have already vanished for good in the country.
This article was written for Mongabay.com and reposted on Focusing on Wildlife.
CITATION: Nanayakkara, Ranil P. & Peter J. Kirk, Salindra K. Dayananda, G.A.S.M. Ganehiarachchi, Nilantha Vishvanath, T.G. Tharaka Kusuminda (2012): A new species of tiger spider, genus Poecilotheria, from northern Sri Lanka. BTS Journal. 28(1): 6-15.