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Discovery of a metallic-blue tarantula bolsters case for trade protection

  • A shiny, metallic-blue tarantula is Sri Lanka’s latest addition to the Indian Ocean island’s list of spiders, a new study reveals.
  • The discovery comes as a global summit on wildlife trade takes place in Geneva, where Sri Lanka is calling for enhanced protection of tarantulas from the exotic pet trade.
  • Researchers identify habitat loss and the pet trade as the biggest threats to tarantulas in the wild, and call for strict enforcement of laws against smuggling of species.

Researchers in Sri Lanka have described an eye-catching new species of tarantula, in a discovery they hope will underscore ongoing efforts to better regulate the global trade of rare and exotic spiders.

Chilobrachys jonitriantisvansicklei was described from a patch of forest spanning just 347 hectares (857 acres), an area about the size of New York City’s Central Park, in the western district of Kalutara. The researchers found it by chance while conducting a more general study on spiders, they write in a paper published in the British Tarantula Society Journal. They named the new species after Joni Triantis Van Sickle, the co-founder of the Colorado-based conservation NGO Idea Wild.

The new species is only the second from the genus Chilobrachys known from Sri Lanka, and comes 126 years after the discovery of the type species, C. nitelinus. It’s also distinct from the 26 other known Chilobrachys tarantulas, found across South and East Asia and which tend to be brown, black or gray, lacking vibrant colors or sheens on their dorsal surface, the researchers say.

“The collected specimen on the other hand has a metallic turquoise-blue sheen on all four legs and also an iridescent sheen on the carapace and abdomen,” they write in the paper.

Yet it’s that exotic appearance that conservationists identify as possibly the biggest threat to its survival. A dearth of research into Sri Lanka’s endemic spiders has allowed their collection from the wild and into the global pet trade to go largely unchecked, according to Samantha Gunasekera, a former deputy director of the biodiversity unit at the country’s customs department.

Various tarantula species from around the island are smuggled out to be sold for between $50 and $400 to pet collectors, a practice identified by both customs and police departments as a “persistent problem.”

Sumanapala, from the University of Colombo, surveys Sri Lanka’s endemic species. Image courtesy of Dilani Rachitra.

According to Amila Prasanna Sumanapala, a researcher at the University of Colombo and co-author of the new study, Sri Lanka has sufficient legislation to ensure species conservation; what’s lacking, however, is enforcement to crack down on the persistent trafficking of protected species into the illicit pet trade.

The discovery of C. jonitriantisvansicklei therefore comes at the right time to highlight the need for improved protection for tarantulas from the global wildlife trade, as the summit of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) takes place in Geneva.

“The international summit has created platform for discussion on spider conservation,” Sumanapala told Mongabay. “Tarantulas like the newly discovered species need more conservation efforts, as they are traded for their charisma. Same with trading of [venomous] snakes. There is the thrill of keeping as domestic pets species otherwise considered dangerous.”

Sri Lanka and the U.S. are currently proposing more stringent trade regulations for all tarantula species in the genus Poecilotheria, also known as tiger spiders, at the 18th Conference of the Parties (CoP18) to CITES, which runs from Aug. 17 to 28. Prop 46, as it’s known, seeks to have all 15 Poecilotheria species, five of which are found only in Sri Lanka, listed in CITES Appendix II, as they’re considered vulnerable due to extensive collection from the wild to be traded as pets. While inclusion in Appendix II wouldn’t prohibit their trade, it would make it more tightly regulated, including requiring export permits as well as studies to show that the trade would not be detrimental to the species’ continued survival in the wild.

Sumanapala said it was also important to protect the habitats in which these spiders are found, many of which are vulnerable to human incursion and deforestation.

“To conserve these species, what we need is rainforest conservation,” he said.

The tarantula emerges from its burrow in a wet zone forest patch. Image courtesy of Amila Prasanna Sumanapala.

He also called for more sweeping measures that would protect not just tiger spiders but all tarantulas (family Theraphosidae), including the newly described C. jonitriantisvansicklei, and thousands of other species under the infraorder Mygalomorphae.

“The inclusion of mygalomorph spiders in the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance of Sri Lanka, and the subsequent listing in CITES … will help ensure protection to the new species and other mygalomorph spiders in Sri Lanka,” the researchers conclude in their paper.

 

Citation:

Nanayakkara, R. P., Sumanapala, A. P., & Kirk, P. (2019). Another from Sri Lanka, after 126 years; Chilobrachys jonitriantisvansicklei Sp. nov. (Araneae: Theraphosidae) from a fragmented forest patch in the wet zone of Sri Lanka. British Tarantula Society Journal34(2), 25-36.

 

Banner image of Chilobrachys jonitriantisvansicklei, a shiny metallic-blue tarantula from a fragmented wet zone forest patch in western Sri Lanka, courtesy of Amila Prasanna Sumanapala.