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article imageWorld's most popular Christmas tree is also home to a tarantula

By Karen Graham     Dec 22, 2014 in Science
Without a doubt, the most popular Christmas tree is the Fraser fir. With its distinctive blue-green color and pleasant scent, along with needles that retain their freshness during the whole of the holiday season, it is the perfect tree in all respects.
Few people know this, but the Fraser fir, in nature, is only found in the southeastern Appalachian Mountains of southwestern Virginia, western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee where it grows at elevations above 3,900 feet to 6,683 feet.
Now this is not to say Fraser firs are not grown elsewhere in the world because they are. Scotland has plantations of Fraser firs and sells thousands of them in the United Kingdom and Ireland during the holiday season. The trees are also grown in parts of some of the northern states in the U.S. and in Quebec, Canada, too.
But in North Carolina, the Fraser fir business is a multi-million dollar venture, so much so that the tree was named the state's "official" Christmas tree. But there is now concern for the native Fraser firs of the Appalachian mountains. The big danger to the Fraser firs has been the introduction of an invasive insect, the balsam woolly adelgid (Adelges piceae) from Europe.
 Ghost  Fraser Firs killed by the Balsam woolly adelgid on Clingmans Dome  Great Smoky Mountain Nati...
"Ghost" Fraser Firs killed by the Balsam woolly adelgid on Clingmans Dome, Great Smoky Mountain National Park.
When first introduced, it ended up destroying nearly 80 percent of the fir trees. New seedlings were planted, but there is fear that once the trees get old enough to develop a bark coating, the insect will also attack those trees.
A tiny tarantula depends on the Fraser fir surviving
And this leads the story to the tale of one of the world's smallest tarantulas. It is called the Spruce-fir moss spider (Microhexura montivaga). It is an endangered species of mygalomorph spiders and are only is found in the Southern Appalachian mountains. Mygalomorph spiders include tarantulas and funnel-web spiders.
The spruce-fir moss spider is only 3-4 mm in size. Their color varies from light brown to yellow-brown to a darker reddish brown, with no markings on its abdomen. The little spider was not discovered until 1928, and amazingly, they have only been found on a handful of peaks in the southern Appalachian mountains, There is one mountain in North Carolina, along the Avery/Caldwell County line, where they're found on a single rock outcrop and a nearby boulder, according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
The spruce-fir moss spider only lives on the highest mountain peaks in the Southern Appalachian Moun...
The spruce-fir moss spider only lives on the highest mountain peaks in the Southern Appalachian Mountains of western North Carolina, eastern Tennessee, and southwest Virginia.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
The spiders live in the moss mats that have formed beneath the Fraser firs. They build a funnel-like web, and it is apparently used as a shelter, rather than for catching prey, according to wildlife officials. But with the kill off of the Fraser firs from the balsam woolly adelgid, the little tarantula's fate is up in the air as the moss mats dry up and disappear.
But this story tells us a bigger tale, one of an interdependence seen in nature all over the world. The death or destruction of one single species does not go unheard. It impacts other plants and animals that are interdependent on it. So if you do happen to find one of those little spruce-fir moss spiders in your Fraser fir this year, please don't squash the little fellow.
More about Christmas tree, Fraser fir, appalachian mountains, tiny tarantula, Endangered species
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