Spiders with Long Tails Found in Ancient Amber

The dorsal view of entire Chimerarachne yingi specimen. Note the long tail-like appendage. Credit University of Kansas

"It makes us wonder if these may still be alive today", Selden said. But it wasn't until amber was bought over to China, by dealers selling it to research institutions, that they actually came across this hard evidence. Given it was encased in amber, Chimerarachne must have lived on or around tree trunks, and like its modern counterparts it most likely would have fed on insects.

As a result, the species has been named Chimerarachne in reference to the Chimera - a monstrous fire-breathing creature from Greek mythology which was composed of limbs from various animals.

100 million years ago, spider-like critters had fancy long tails to go with their fangs and spinnerets. However, according to Seldon, there is a possibility of descendants of the creepy tailed spiders living in southeast Asian forests even now.

The team theorized that the tail potentially served as a form of antenna for sensing its environment, particularly because the tail was thin and whip-like.

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All four of the specimens were preserved in amber from what's now Myanmar (formerly Burma). "Maybe the tail originally had a sensory function; it is covered in short hairs, but when spiders changed to lifestyles like being sit-and-wait predators, the tail was no longer really needed and became lost", he said. At 0.1 inches (3 millimeters), the tail was slightly longer than the spider's 0.07-inch (2 mm) body.

The extraordinary finding is described in Nature Ecology & Evolution by an worldwide team of boffins in the Hukawng Valley, Myanmar.

Selden said: "There's been a lot of amber being produced from northern Myanmar and its interest stepped up about ten years ago when it was discovered this amber was mid-Cretaceous". These specimens became available past year to Nanjing Institute of Geology and Paleontology, he added. But Bo Wang, also at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Nanjing, and his colleagues examined two other fossils of the species and argue that its advanced silk-spinning apparatus shows it was part of a lineage of tailed spiders that survived until at least 100 million years ago.

Professor Selden believes Chimerarachne represents "a kind of missing link" between true spiders and earlier spider forerunners that had tails but lacked spinnerets.

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Similar to today's black widows and huntsman spiders, C. yingi had silk-producing spinnerets near its rear end. Spider relatives that are almost three and four times as old as C. yingi also had tails but no spinnerets.

"Taken together, Chimerarachne has a unique body plan among the arachnids and raises important questions about what an early spider looked like, and how the spinnerets and pedipalp organ may have evolved". The two groups say they didn't know about each other until after they submitted their results to the same journal. And it's visible in one of the oldest fossils from a close spider relative, Attercopus fimbriunguis, which dates back 380 million years.

The telson is something we see it today in scorpions - but it has never been known before in a spider.

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