A spider that looks uncannily like a cross between a spider and a large ant, has been discovered in the scrub jungle inside the Madras Christian College (MCC) - the first time in the 117 years after the species was first found in Ceylon.
“I honestly didn’t know what species or genus the spider was when I first found it,” explains John Caleb T D, who is doing his PhD at the Zoology department. It was only after he preserved the specimen and took it along with him to the Amaravati University, that arachnid researchers told him that he may have just stumbled across a long-lost spider.
In fact, how he came across the male Aetius decollatus (or the ant-mimiciking spider) was quite by chance. “I have been scouring this huge campus’ jungle since 2010 as my thesis involves a spider diversity study inside the campus,” he says, “I was returning from inside the scrub when I spotted a line of ants carrying something that looked like a large ant - but with eight legs,” he adds. When he looked closer, he realized that it was a very different kind of spider from the common sort he had been spotting and so shooed the ants away and picked up the dead male and preserved it. This was last October and was behind the MCC Farm.
Just as all hope of building on the discovery by finding a live specimen had all but run dry, John had a stroke of luck. He was chipping away at some bark, a few steps away from the Zoology department (almost a kilometre away from the other spot) when he spotted a hale, hearty and extremely sprightly female ant-mimicking spider, “I was very surprised and collected it immediately. It was an exciting find,” he says.
This is a huge discovery, says his guide Dr Manu Thomas, an Associate Professor at the department, simply because a DNA study of the specimen could help bridge the relation between this species and others. So is there a chance of finding more of the species? “Of course,” says Dr Thomas vehemently, “If there is a male and a female on the campus there will definitely be a habitat here in our campus,” says the professor whose field of specialisation is actually entomology or more specifically dragonflies.
John, who travels all the way from Tirumullaivoyal to Tambaram is on a high - all those years of walking around with a camera, chasing fleet-footed spiders, chipping away at bushes, tree bark and looking affectionately at arachnids must not have been easy for the young research scholar.
“The worst thing is when you spot a really rare species and you want to get a good picture before capturing it. As I try to get the picture, the spiders get wind and quickly flee the web and they’re lost for eternity,” he says with a wry smile.
So what’s next? “First he will have to get his thesis completed after which we can pursue this discovery and get the necessary citations,” says Dr Joseph. There is every possibility that MCC may just become a hotspot for all the arachnid researchers or ‘spider-men’ in this part of the world.