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‘Pelican spider’ has a birdlike jaw

Science

Hannah Wood/Smithsonian

This strange looking ‘pelican spider’ has a birdlike jaw—and a taste for other spiders

Spiders don’t often resemble birds, but pelican spiders—which use beaklike mouthparts to spear other arachnids—are a notable exception. The group of rice-size animals were first discovered in a 50-million-year-old slab of amber and were thought to be extinct until live pelican spiders were spotted in Madagascar in 1881. Only 19 species were known to occur on the African island, but that number has doubled with the discovery of 18 new species, researchers report today in ZooKeys. Scientists made the breakthrough by looking at hundreds of pelican spiders under a microscope. Though they all had “beaks,” some sported longer mouthparts, and others had more spines—a good sign that they were members of different species. Pelican spiders use their elongated mouthparts—shown protruding from the right side of the pictured spider’s “head”—to snatch unsuspecting spiders and hold them at a distance while they inject venom and wait for them to die. It’s a nifty strategy, but one that could be in peril if Madagascar’s forests continue to disappear. The birdlike arachnids also prowl the forests of South Africa and Australia, but the newly discovered pelican spiders are found only in Madagascar.

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