In February 2014 an unusual arachnid was discovered in the Tembe Elephant Park of northern KwaZulu-Natal. Barbara and Clinton Wright from Wild Tomorrow Fund were convinced it was a new species, but struggled for years to have the Phinda button spider classified.
This all changed in 2017, when Ian Engelbrecht, research associate with the Department of Zoology and Entomology at the University of Pretoria, visited the reserve. “I immediately thought this was something special,” says Engelbrecht, “but I was uncertain if it was just some specimen that blew in from Madagascar or some other exotic place.”
It has a gentle temperament for a spider genus that is feared worldwide
This prompted a search for the species and before long more specimens were discovered at &Beyond Phinda Private Game Reserve. How this species has avoided being discovered is baffling experts, but it might be due to its shy nature, limited range and specialised habitat requirements, or it could simply have been overlooked in the past.
What makes the Phinda button spider special
“Almost everything about this species is unique and special. It is extremely large for a button spider, it constructs a bright purple egg sac, lives in a very specific critically endangered habitat type, and has a gentle temperament for a spider genus that is feared worldwide,” says Barbara. As with all button spiders, this species is also considered medically important.
Wright, a former international model turned self-taught entomologist, has recently hatched over 5 000 Phinda button spiders in her kitchen in order raise little male spiders, which are near impossible to find in the wild, and required for species description. To date 10 female specimens have been discovered. Wright believes the Phinda button spider is an apex predator in the terrestrial arthropod environment.
The Phinda button spider is arguably the biggest widow spider in the world. It has charismatic bright red markings on its back and underbelly, unlike other African button spiders, which either have markings on their back or their underside, but never both. The females are also much larger than the males. It inhabits trees and stumps more than 50 centimetres above bare ground, higher than most other button spiders. Its web is a messy structure that protrudes from the hollow of a tree.
Widow spider facts
- Widow spiders are known for their toxic, sometimes fatal bite.
- The Latin genus name for all widow spiders is Latrodectus, meaning silent biter
- There are 31 recognised species of widow spiders globally, with eight recorded on the African continent
- In South Africa widow spiders are referred to as button spiders possibly derived from the Afrikaans name Knopiespinnekop
Where to find the Phinda button spider
So far the species has only been found in sand forest vegetation, a critically endangered lowland forest type occurring in South Africa and Mozambique. This vegetation is at risk as it is cleared for agriculture and illegal wood harvesting for ornaments. Wild Tomorrow Fund hopes to use the spider as a flagship project for conservation of the sand forests, and for future entomology and arachnology projects.
Should you find a Phinda button spider, do not disturb it, snap a photo and upload the image to iNaturalist or the ADU Virtual Museum. Alternatively, email Barbara Wright on Barbara@wildtomorrowfund.org
Written by Georgina Lockwood
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