Largest Fossil Spider Ever Found Gives Peek Into Arachnid Evolution

By Valerie Ross
Apr 20, 2011 10:55 PMNov 19, 2019 8:10 PM


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Nephila jurassica, with a 5mm scale bar

What's the News: Researchers have unearthed the largest fossilized spider yet, announced in a study

online today in Biology Letters. The fossil, a Jurassic Period ancestor of the modern orb-weaver spider, gives scientists a glimpse not only into the evolutionary history of orb-weaver spiders, but how these ancient arachnids might have impacted the evolution of insect species that could be snared in the webs. How the Heck:

  • The fossil, found preserved in volcanic ash in the Daohugou fossil beds in northeastern China, dates back 165 million years. The researchers dubbed the species Nephila jurassica.

  • At about an inch long, the spider's body isn't unusually large, but its leg span, at nearly six inches, is the largest seen in a fossil spider.

  • This spider was female, suggesting the size disparity seen in modern orb-weaver spiders---with females dwarfing the males---may have begun at least 165 million years ago.

  • Silk spinning organs, called spinnerets, preserved on the fossilized spider's legs suggest that, like its modern counterparts, Nephila jurassica spun big, durable webs.

  • The spider's formidable prey-catching ability likely drove the evolution of the medium-to-large insects it fed on, as those species scrambled to survive, the researchers wrote.

What's the Context:

  • Until now, the earliest known fossil from the Nephila genus was 34 million years old; this find pushes back the origin of the genus 130 million years from what researchers previously thought.

  • Modern orb-weaver spiders live in tropical climes, so this fossil suggests that the region where it was found may have had a much muggier climate during the Jurassic than it does today.

  • The oldest fossil spiders ever found are nearly twice as old as this specimen, dating back 310 million years.

  • While its size is remarkable for a fossilized spider, Nephila jurassica's legspan is only half as big as that of the world's largest living spiders, the evocatively named goliath bird-eater and giant huntsman.

Reference: Paul A. Selden, ChungKun Shih and Dong Ren. "A golden orb-weaver spider (Araneae: Nephilidae: Nephila) from the Middle Jurassic of China." Biology Letters online before print, April 20, 2011. DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2011.0228

Image: Selden et al. paper

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