A team of scientists from the Paleontological Institute at the University of Kansas recently unearthed what is believed to be the largest spider fossil ever found. Discovered near the Daohugou village in Northeastern China, the perfectly preserved specimen named Nephila jurassica is a close relative of the modern day Golden Silk Orb Weaver.
Experts estimate that the arthropod is about 165 million years old and inhabited the earth during the middle Jurassic era. What surprised the paleontologists was its rather puny size, which measured 5 centimeters when curled up and about 2 inches when stretched from end to end. That's because the Nephila jurassica lived during a period when oxygen levels were much higher, causing similar insects to grow to almost monstrous sizes. For example, back then dragon flies sported a wingspan of up to a meter, while millipedes measured a whopping 2.5 meters long. In fact, even its modern day relative, then Golden Silk Orb Weaver is much bigger, with the female spider growing as large as 5 inches.
Similar to today's Golden Orb Weaver, this one also had spinnerets or silk spinning organs on its leg, suggesting that it too was capable of spinning large durable webs, to trap insects.
Scientists believe that the ancient spider has been around for over 350 million years, when the Earth was one big supercontinent known as Pangaea. However, the species was well spread out by the time it broke up into seven continents and can therefore be found in many parts of the world today. Since it thrives in tropical climate experts speculate that Daohugoa region used to be warmer and much more humid, then it is today.
While this is the largest spider fossil, it is not the oldest one found. Prior to this, scientists have unearthed fossils of two other spider species estimated to be 310 million years old.
Golden silk orb-weavers are named after the color of the spider silk with which they weave their beautiful golden webs that are large enough to trap insects, bats and even birds. While not as lethal as the Black Widow spider, the venom of these arthropods can cause a discomfort and redness to human victims for about 24 hours. Since they thrive in tropical climates, they are quite commonly found in many parts of the world, including Australia, Asia and in Africa, especially Madagascar where they are known to build giant golden webs that sometimes extend across roads.
Resources: physorg.com, newscientist.com