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article imageAustralia: Town invaded by 25,000-tarantula 'mega cluster'

By Megan Hamilton     Jun 27, 2015 in Odd News
Maningrida - A small town in Australia has, for reasons known only to tarantulas, become a hotspot for the hairy spiders — to the tune of more than 25,000 of the creatures.
Experts have no idea why this is happening.
Maningrida, which suddenly seems to be the tarantula capital of Australia, is a small town about 300 miles east of Darwin, Metro reports.
It's definitely sparked the curiosity of arachnologist Dr. Robert Raven.
"Normally, I find two or three hundred spiders in one spot," he said. "Presumably, something is missing that would hammer them or there is something good [like a food source]."
"It's one of the beauties of science, being able to say 'I don't know.'"
However, Raven thinks this cloud might have silken threads in that silver lining.
The tarantula takeover could provide valuable information to medical research, he notes.
In an interview with Australia's ABC News, Raven said studying the venom this spider produces is an opportunity to create new drugs, and that, he said, could end up becoming profitable for Maningrida, The International Business Times reports. .
"The entire intellectual property concerning the spider – its young, its adults, and its venom – are all property of the community," he said. "This is a resource for the community in a number of ways...and this could flow back into the community eventually to help them manage the parks better."
Raven, the head of Queensland Museum's arachnological division, has named more than 400 spiders in a career spanning 40 years.
This particular spider is new to science, having only been discovered 10 years ago by local kids who were on a scientific excursion, ABC News reports. The spider has yet to be scientifically named, but it has been dubbed the Maningrida diving tarantula, and for good reason.
The spiders live along a 10 kilometer stretch of floodplain that's largely shielded from the outside world and deep within the lands held by traditional Aboriginal owners.
"When we came across the tarantulas on the flood plain it was like a eureka moment," said teacher Mason Scholes from the Maningrida Community Education Centre.
"We knew we had found something pretty special."
While not much is known about this species, what is known is that it's a good swimmer — coating itself in air bubbles to breathe underwater and access its burrow if it is submerged during the wet season.
"It seems the spider is very comfortable underwater," Raven said.
"The Aboriginal boys have done some checks, and they put a root into the water and the spider very happily runs down into the water and sits on the root covered in a beautiful coat of air bubbles."
There are other mysterious aspects to this spider as well. It's not known why the tarantula lives in such huge concentrations in such a small area; in some areas, the burrows are only a few feet apart.
Scientists also don't know where the spiderlings (baby tarantulas) live or whether the species can be found elsewhere in the Northern Territory.
Raven thinks it's likely the tarantula cluster has lived in the same place for thousands of years, spanning several generations, Celsius reports. Why so many tarantulas have stayed in this area for so long isn't known.
"To get that number in one spot would take them a fair while...the assumption is that these guys have been happy there for probably hundreds or thousands of years."
"The two other interesting correlations is when I've seen them in the wet, they'll take frogs in the blink of an eye," he said. "When a frog jumps in front of them, whack, they'll just take it like that into the burrow."
Researchers digging up the spider's burrows were able to study how the tarantulas survive during the wet season. During the dry season, the burrows essentially form a straight line, but in the wet season, they resemble intestines. This, Raven said, possibly allows them to trap more air underground.
"I'm wondering whether they're actually lining the straight, flat bits of the burrow with heavier silk," he said. "They can probably go into these areas and brush the air off them into the space, if they've got something to capture the air, and the silk will eventually do this if they've got it thick enough."
"This is one of the many things where we really just don't understand what's going on."
Venom from the spiders is powerful enough to kill a small animal, but it's not fatal to humans. It is powerful enough, however, to induce vomiting for six to eight hours, The Sydney Morning Herald reports. This is why Raven thinks this could be useful for medical research.
"Pharmaceutical applications could apply across a broad spectrum," he said.
Fortunately for the tarantulas, the only danger they face is from wild pigs which crush the tops of the burrows. The damage is only superficial, Celsius reports.
School kids have taken excursions to the place, but the land is owned by the local Indigenous people, so unsuspecting walkers aren't likely to stumble on the field accidentally. And, to gain access to the area, a person has to ask permission of custodians at the gate.
Raven now hopes to find someone who's willing to take over his work with the spiders. There are some considerations researchers wishing to study the Maningrida diving tarantula need to think about, however.
"Someone who is based out in Darwin [should apply]," he said. "You'd need a serious degree of understanding and empathy with the local indigenous community."
When asked why he doesn't want to continue the research himself, Raven said, "Someone young can take over, you'd need to be able to run."
"There's buffaloes and pigs."
That could certainly make the job of studying the spiders interesting.
More about large hairy spiders, tarantulas, maningrida diving tarantulas, 25000 tarantula mega cluster, Australia
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