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Stranger than fiction? New spiders found in Brazil named after creatures from popular fantasy stories

  • Seven recently discovered spiders all belong to the genus Ochyrocera and were found in the iron caves of Floresta Nacional de Carajás in the northern Brazilian state of Pará.
  • While all seven species can live and breed without sunlight, they’re not necessarily consigned to the deepest depths of the underworld. The same cannot be said for some of the new spiders’ namesakes, however.
  • Researchers with the Sao Paulo, Brazil-based Instituto Butantan have named the seven new spiders in honor of characters from fantasy works like The Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter series.

The worlds created by fantasy authors like J. R. R. Tolkien and J. K. Rowling are perhaps best known for their magicians and mythical beasts like dragons, but it would appear one real-life creature, the spider, is just as mysterious to some people, because spiders have often been featured prominently as characters in fantastic literature, as well.

Many of these true-to-life fantasy creatures are now getting some of the recognition they deserve as Brazilian researchers have named seven newly discovered spider species in honor of characters from works like The Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter series.

The seven new spiders all belong to the genus Ochyrocera and were found in the iron caves of Floresta Nacional de Carajás in the northern Brazilian state of Pará. But while they were discovered primarily in caves, the 2,000 specimens gathered by researchers with the Sao Paulo, Brazil-based Instituto Butantan do not exhibit what are called “troglomorphic characteristics” — physical attributes like a lack of pigmentation and diminished or missing eyes that are typical adaptations for species that live exclusively underground or in caves.

Instead, the spiders are what’s known as “edaphic troglophile species,” meaning they’re “capable of completing [their] life cycle in soil, shallow subterranean habitats, or caves,” the researchers write in a study published in the journal ZooKeys in which they described the seven new species to science. Two of the seven new species were actually collected outside of caves.

This is the new species Ochyrocera atlachnacha on its web. Photo Credit: Igor Cizauskas.

In other words, they can live and breed without sunlight, but they’re not necessarily consigned to the deepest depths of the underworld. The same cannot be said for some of the new spiders’ namesakes, however.

For instance, the great spider Shelob, who appears in Tolkien’s The Two Towers, dwells in a lair beneath Cirith Ungol, “the Pass of the Spider.” In Portuguese, Shelob is translated as ‘Laracna’ — and hence one of the new species was named Ochyrocera laracna.

Ochyrocera ungoliant, meanwhile, is a reference to Ungoliant, “an evil spider spirit created by J. R. R. Tolkien in the book ‘The Silmarillion,’” the researchers write in the study.

This is the new species Ochyrocera varys predating on a fly. Photo Credit: Igor Cizauskas.

Atlach-Nacha, “The Spider God” of H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, originally came from Saturn but is now imprisoned in a cave beneath the fictional Mount Voormithadreth. Ochyrocera atlachnacha was one of the most abundant species collected in the caves of Floresta Nacional de Carajás by the Instituto Butantan researchers.

Not all of the fictional spiders that inspired the researchers live underground, however. Aragog, a small-elephant-sized spider with a taste for human flesh whom Rowling wrote about in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, lives in the Forbidden Forest. Ochyrocera aragogue, on the other hand, was found exclusively in the caves of the Carajás region.

Some of the new species were actually named after friendly fictional spiders. Ochyrocera charlotte was named after the eponymous spider from E.B. White’s classic Charlotte’s Web, while Ochyrocera misspider was named for Little Miss Spider, the main character in several children’s books by David Kirk.

This is a couple of the newly described species Ochyrocera misspider on a web. Photo Credit: Igor Cizauskas.

Lastly, there’s Ochyrocera varys, inspired by Lord Varys, a character in George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones books who is often referred to as “The Spider” because, as a spymaster, he weaves his web of influence across Westeros.

The researchers note that there are likely to be many more Ochyrocera species yet to be discovered in the Carajás region of northern Brazil, as the spiders have not been the focus of much research. But they also warn that the area and its biodiversity are potentially threatened by mining activities.

“Most specimens of all the species herein described are located in caves in the Floresta Nacional de Carajás,” they write in the study. “This area has been an environmental impact target due to the mining process. The effect of this impact in local spider populations has not yet been fully evaluated, especially as large samplings are lacking in other areas, especially those outside caves.”

A Ochyrocera varys sp. n., predating a Diptera B Ochyrocera atlachnacha sp. n., on the web C Ochyrocera misspider sp. n., couple in the web D Ochyrocera varys sp. n., carrying the egg sac E Entrance of an iron cave F Canga vegetation on rocky outcrop. Image via Brescovit et al. (2018). doi:10.3897/zookeys.726.19778.

CITATION

• Brescovit, A. D., Cizauskas, I., & Mota, L. P. (2018). Seven new species of the spider genus Ochyrocera from caves in Floresta Nacional de Carajás, PA, Brazil (Araneae, Ochyroceratidae). ZooKeys 726: 87–130. doi:10.3897/zookeys.726.19778

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