New Trapdoor Spider Discovered in Alabama

A team of researchers from Auburn University has discovered a new trapdoor spider species from a well-developed housing subdivision in the heart of the city of Auburn, Alabama.

A female specimen of Myrmekiaphila tigris (J. Bond)

The new species, described in the paper in the open access journal ZooKeys, was named the Auburn Tiger Trapdoor spider, Myrmekiaphila tigris, in honor of Auburn University’s costumed Tiger mascot, Aubie.

M. tigris belongs to a genus that contains 11 other species of trapdoor spider found throughout the eastern United States.

Trapdoor spiders – related to tarantulas, funnel web spiders, and their kin – construct subterranean burrows that they cover with a hinged door made of a mixture of silk and soil. Female spiders spend nearly their entire lives in a single silk-lined burrow from which they forage as sit-and-wait predators. Prey are captured, usually at night, when an insect or other animal causes a vibration, provoking the spider to leap from the burrow entrance, bite and envenomate the unsuspecting victim, and then return to the bottom of the burrow to feast on its prize.

Due to superficial similarities, M. tigris was previously believed to be a different species, M. foliata, according to a taxonomic study of the team that was published a few years ago.

However, closer examination revealed considerable differences in appearance, particularly in their genitalia, that were supported by additional studies comparing the DNA of M. tigris with that of related species.

“Despite the physical uniqueness of these specimens, the use of DNA as an alternate, less subjective line of evidence for recognizing the species was warranted, given our excitement with discovering a new species literally in our own backyards,” said lead author Prof. Jason Bond, director of the Auburn University Museum of Natural History.

Members of the species are rarely encountered individually. However, once males reach sexual maturity at around 5 or 6 years old, they emerge from their burrows to find a female with which to mate; shortly thereafter they die. Wandering males can be found in relatively large numbers on neighborhood sidewalks, in swimming pools and even in homeowners’ garages for a brief time during the months of November and December.

A male specimen of Myrmekiaphila tigris (J. Bond)

Females, on the other hand, are much more secretive, living relatively long, 15 to 20-year lives in their below-ground burrows. They often have more intricate burrows that include side chambers with additional underground trapdoors. Burrows can be found along the banks in relatively young, secondary growth forests in neighborhood natural areas.

“The discovery of a new species in a well-developed area like this further demonstrates the amount of biodiversity on our planet that remains unknown; we know so little about our home planet and the other organisms that inhabit it with us,” Prof. Bond concluded.