Spiders with 'long whippy' tails found in 100 million year old amber

Muriel Hammond
February 7, 2018

"Amber preserves the external structures - and sometimes even the internal structures - of fossil arthropods in such fine detail that these ancient species from almost 100 million years ago can be described in almost as much detail as a living spider", Dr. Greg Edgecombe, a researcher at the United Kingdom's Natural History Museum, told CNN in an email.

It's the latest in a series of Cretaceous-period fossils from the amber deposits in northern Myanmar's Hukawng Valley.

The spider lived on the islands of Myanmar - formerly Burma - during the mid-Cretaceous when Tyrannosaurus Rex ruled the planet. With its curious mix of ancient and modern traits - a long, skinny tail inherited from a distant arachnid ancestor, but a silk-producing organ like those found in spiders today - the tiny chimerarachne, or "chimera spider", is not a member of the immediate family.

The new study confirms a prediction the researchers made a few years ago when they described a similar arachnid that also resembles a spider with a tail, but does not have silk-producing organs - known as spinnerets.

"Maybe the tail originally had a sensory function; it is covered in short hairs, but when spiders changed to lifestyle like being sit-and-wait predators, the tail was no longer really needed and became lost", Bo Wang was quoted by The Guardian.

After closely scrutinizing the critters, scientists have determined they're likely a sort of proto-spider, not quite a proper arachnid, but a bridge between today's eight-legged insect-hunters and a more primitive species.

But from the point of view of Gonzalo Giridet's team at Harvard University, who conducted the other study, Chimerarachne yingi would be a Uraraneida itself and would have gotten extinct without leaving descendants.

Spiders as a group date back to more than 300 million years ago. The other claims that this new species may instead represent a very early branch of modern-day spiders. These specimens became available previous year to Nanjing Institute of Geology and Paleontology, he added. Researchers do not entirely agree on how the creepy crawly should be classified, however. But the main difference is, arachnids had a tail while modern-day spiders do not have any tail.

They introduced their discovery, dubbed Chimerarachne yingi, in a pair of papers published Monday in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution.

As a result, the species has been named Chimerarachne in reference to the Chimera - a monstrous fire-breathing creature from Greek mythology which was composed of limbs from various animals. But it's hard to know what the chimera spider's daily life was like.

Spiders are one of the success stories of the natural world, with more than 47,000 living species. For example, if they discover that these ancient creatures made venom, that could place them more firmly in the modern spider lineage. He thought the presence of spinnerets pulled it to the side of spiders. It makes us wonder if these may still be alive today.

But Selden says this doesn't necessarily mean the ancient spider built and lived on webs.

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