Nature photographer discovers new species of spider
DUBAI // At home under rocks deep in wadis of the Northern Emirates, a tarantula has officially been recognised as native to the UAE thanks to amateur photographer Priscilla van Andel, who found it on a hiking trip with her husband.
The Dutch couple were convinced that the spider they had found in Hatta was a runaway pet, as no records of local mygalomorphae, or tarantula, existed.
“First we thought that if there were tarantulas out here, why would I be the one to find them?” said Ms van Andel.
“We thought there were many people with tarantulas as pets, so this must be one of them.”
Only after she had posted photos of the spider on Facebook did Ms van Andel receive a reaction from arachnologists in her network that indicated what they had found was a species that had gone unrecorded in the UAE.
One of the world’s leading tarantula experts, Rick West, got in touch with Ms van Andel after seeing the picture.
He told her that no official record of that spider existed and asked her to collect specimens for examination. The females can grow to between seven and 10 centimetres in length.
“This was of course difficult, I was very uncomfortable with spiders before, let alone tarantulas,” said Ms van Andel. “Now I sleep, eat and live with them.” Over the past two years, Ms van Andel, a wildlife photographer, has been going to wadis two to three times a week during the winter.
She collects specimens, takes them back to her house in Dubai and then sends them overseas for testing.
“This is the first official record of a mygalomorph spider in the family theraphosidae being reported and confirmed from the United Arab Emirates,” said Mr West.
This particular spider, in the genus Ischnocolus is not harmful to people or pets, as its venom is weak.
However, Mr West said they were often much maligned and killed in many countries.
The spider itself is also very sensitive as it is nocturnal, and long exposure to sunlight can be lethal.
For protection from the sun and predators, the spider constructs a barricade of mud and webbing – another reason why it has eluded so many.
“It’s possible these spiders may have been seen by people for many years, even generations,” said Mr West.
“However, it was Ms van Andel who made the effort in 2013 to bring them to the attention of arachnologists for official investigation, validation and recording as part of the wondrous species biodiversity found in the UAE.”
According to the Tribulus, the Journal of the Emirates Natural History Group, findings like these show that much of the biodiversity in the UAE has not yet been catalogued.
Mr West said that amateur findings often happen. Commonly species will be recognisable to locals who assume that it has been officially categorised and given a Latin name – that is until foreigners or biologists encounter it and realise that it is in fact unknown to taxonomists. Along with fellow arachnologists Steven Nunn and Dr Jose Guadanucci, Mr West is now investigating similar Ischnocolus in Oman, Yemen and Saudi Arabia.
Over the next year, they plan on publishing the official records of these spiders native to the Arabian Peninsula.
Ms van Andel is still tasked with the job of collecting a live male specimen to complete the categorisation process, as every attempt to do so has been unsuccessful so far.
“I would say I would die to save animals,” said Ms van Andel.
“I know it’s a little bit dramatic but it’s pretty close, I’d do a lot to save any animal.”