A new species of button spider found in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa

Spiders of the genus Latrodectus, along with tarantulas and jumping spiders, are probably the best known spiders in the world. They are commonly referred to as button spiders in South Africa, redback spiders in Australia, katipo in New Zealand, or widow spiders elsewhere. We at WTF Entomology, part of Wild Tomorrow Fund, are proud to announce our recent discovery of a new forest dwelling widow species which we have called the Phinda button spider. Although a scientific name has been chosen, we will only release it once the species description has been published, which is currently under review. NOTE: This blog is quite long and has been purposely written this way for anyone who wants to understand the process we went through.

Mature male (top left) and female (right) Phinda button spiders. Photo by Luke Verburgt.

Mature male (top left) and female (right) Phinda button spiders. Photo by Luke Verburgt.

Because the spider is a South African species, we will refer to it as a button spider instead of the more famous black widow moniker. The Phinda button spider is one of the largest button spiders in the world (if not the largest), and definitely larger than any of the other African species. They live specifically in a critically endangered forest type called sand forest which is unique to South Africa and southern Mozambique.

In February 2014 we got a phone call from Naomi Schutte, the wife of Tembe Elephant Park (Tembe) manager Richard Schutte. We had asked them to let us know if they saw anything interesting that crawls on 6 or 8 legs. Naomi had found a cool looking spider in the hollow of a tree in her garden. We rushed to see it first thing in the morning. This is how the first specimen was discovered in Tembe. My husband Clinton Wright and I had been living and working in Tembe at the time. We believed it to be a new species, but it was difficult to prove with just a single specimen. We observed and monitored the spider for over 2 years until she died of old age, then we collected her and sent her to a University for identification.

Button spiders can be difficult to identify, and with only a single specimen, it was initially thought to be the first record for a Zimbabwe button spider in KwaZulu-Natal. However we felt that this was not the correct identification and we then embarked on a journey of discovery that led us by chance to finally discover more specimens and describe this new and incredible button spider.

What stood out for us was the fact that the Tembe specimen had laid 3 (infertile) egg sacs that were bright purple. We could find no other button spider around the world that had a similar coloured egg sac. However, variations and anomalies do occur in nature and until we had more information, it was simply just a belief without proof.

Phinda button spider from Tembe on freshly laid bright purple egg sac under light (infertile - rounded). Changes to shiny grey once dried .

Phinda button spider from Tembe on freshly laid bright purple egg sac under light (infertile - rounded). Changes to shiny grey once dried.

Phinda button spider mature female ventral marking. Photo by Luke Verburgt.

Phinda button spider mature female ventral marking. Photo by Luke Verburgt.

Taxonomists in the entomology and arachnology world are a rare breed – and with so many species still being described - it was hard to find answers. We searched online and posted on social media but didn’t get any satisfactory responses. Slowly over time the spider became more of an afterthought and on the back burner. This all changed one day when Dr Ian Engelbrecht, a good friend and arachnid specialist, came to visit to do some scorpion work on our property Ukuwela, which borders on Phinda Private Game Reserve. When Ian arrived we went through our now familiar routine of showing various captures and specimens of interest, and ended as always with the showstopper, the button spider. Ian took one look at it and exclaimed, “Oh My God – that’s a new species”. Finally, to have someone with extensive knowledge to recognise and confirm what we had always believed. This still didn’t help us as we no longer had the specimen (it was sitting in a jar at a university) and we had no idea where to start.

 

Young mature female Phinda button spider from Phinda, showing dorsal markings with red colours not yet faded and white dorsal circles filled red.

Young mature female Phinda button spider from Phinda, showing dorsal markings with red colours not yet faded and white dorsal circles filled red.

Old mature female Phinda button spider from Tembe, with red dorsal markings faded and white circles prominent, and dorsal circles filled black.

Old mature female Phinda button spider from Tembe, with red dorsal markings faded and white circles prominent, and dorsal circles filled black.

We had booked a spider walk that week with Ryan Tippet in the sand forest of Phinda. We decided to show Ryan the pictures and ask him if he had seen anything similar in his spider walks in the region. As luck would have it, he had seen exactly this species on his last spider walk in Phinda, spotted by Tamsin Naylor, during a spider walk, and they knew exactly where she was. The next few days were some frantic phone calls and arrangements being made with Simon Naylor, the manager of Phinda, which ultimately led us to collecting 2 wild females and one egg sac. This was almost 4 years after the discovery of the first specimen. Phinda’s Ecologist, Craig Sholto-Douglas, then led us through many nights of searching and observing these spiders in the wild and she slowly became the star she was always meant to be. Robin Lyle, Luke Verburgt and Catherine Sole all joined our amazing journey and helped us further unravel the mysteries surrounding the Phinda button spider, each contributing in their unique way.

Before this discovery, there were 31 recognised species globally, with eight recorded from the African continent. Of these eight, six are endemic to Africa (Latrodectus cinctus, L. indistinctus, L. karrooensis, L. renivulvatus, and L. rhodesiensis), and all occur in Southern Africa. The brown button spider (L. geometricus) is believed to have originated from Africa or South America, and has been introduced to North America, parts of Europe, parts of Asia, and parts of Australasia. It is common in parts of southern Africa and is considered cosmopolitan. L. pallidus occurs from the Cape Verde Islands to Libya and L. tredecimguttatus from the Mediterranean to China. Both L. pallidus and L. tredecimguttatus are absent from sub-Saharan Africa. This, in the arachniverse, was a big discovery.

Phinda button spider with single type uniform curved abdominal setae. Photo by Luke Verburgt.

Phinda button spider with single type uniform curved abdominal setae. Photo by Luke Verburgt.

We spent the next year raising and feeding thousands of spiders. My young son Ricky was roped in to help find wild food (aphids, ants and fruit flies when small; termites and anything else as they grew larger) and raise the spiderlings. We raised the spiderlings from the two wild egg sacs with the aim of collecting a male as we have to this day never seen a male in the wild, and at the time had no idea what they looked like. The two wild caught specimens thrived in captivity under conditions mimicking their natural habitat, and they produced another 10 egg sacs in total while in captivity.

Left to right – old shrivelled egg sac from Phinda button spider (Tembe), infertile and rounded; fertile and tear-drop shaped egg sac from Phinda button spider (Phinda) compared to egg sacs of L . geometricus  (Phinda) for size and shape

Left to right – old shrivelled egg sac from Phinda button spider (Tembe), infertile and rounded; fertile and tear-drop shaped egg sac from Phinda button spider (Phinda) compared to egg sacs of L. geometricus (Phinda) for size and shape

As each egg sac on average has about 584 spiderlings (471-692; n=4), this roughly translates to over 6400 spiderlings we raised in a very short time. Most of these we released back into their original habitat, while some we collected for DNA work and fecundity estimates. The purple egg sac is quite large and smooth, bright purple when fist constructed and fades over time to a silvery grey colour. We also noticed that when the egg sac wasn’t fertile, it remained a round shape, but when fertile, formed a tear drop shape, likely due to the weight as it hangs in the web. The spiderlings emerge around 29.9 (27-36; n=9) days after being laid and sometimes stay in the egg sac a few days before emerging, possibly waiting for ideal conditions. They are tiny and brown, with unique white markings. These markings remain the same throughout their life in both sexes, although change in colour and clarity.

In searching for a male, our first attempt yielded poor results as we left the spiderlings together for about a month, feeding them on aphids and fruit flies. This is when we noticed quite a bit of cannibalism, which urged us to separate them from each other. We randomly selected spiderlings and housed them alone to wait for signs of a male. There were very few males in this batch. The next egg sac we separated spiderlings randomly immediately after emerging, and there was a much higher ratio of males to females. It is possible that the females in the first group had targeted males when they started to grow, although this wasn’t tested and just noted for interest.

Males (in captivity) could be identified after about 15-20 days by their uniquely shaped pedipalps and were mature around 26 days. Once mature they stopped shedding and stopped eating and their colours slowly darken over time until it appears to be a uniform dark brown, but under light it still has the same general patterns as all specimens. Mature male abdominal colouration changes dramatically as it ages and fades. The colour of the abdomen of a young mature male is brown with light yellow-white oblong blotches dorsal median and laterally (with indistinct dark brown outlines), and no transverse light areas. Old mature males have a dark brown abdomen with darker brown irregular circle shapes (the same pattern and position) visible under bright light or flash photography.

Young mature male in extreme close up. Photo by Luke Verburgt

Young mature male in extreme close up. Photo by Luke Verburgt

 In females the dorsal median and ventral markings turn yellow with white outline and overall brown colour darkens, until black and reaches maturity after ca. 6 months. Legs are initially banded, but turn uniform black in females when mature. General abdominal shapes, patterns, and positions thereof, remain relatively constant across males, females, and individuals and throughout their lifecycle, changing only in colour and clarity.

While we collected crucial observation data on the new button spider, my husband and I researched all Latrodectus species across the world for comparison. Just because this spider is new to the region or country, it doesn’t mean it couldn’t have blown in or somehow made it across from, for example, Madagascar. We had to eliminate the possibility that these were already known to science. Button spiders are difficult to describe as there is no single attribute one can use to separate the species with confidence. Initially, colour patterns and characteristics of the abdominal setae where used to distinguish between species until Levi (1959) concluded that this was insufficient and recommended using genital morphology instead. Lotz (1994) suggested that the two methods should be used in combination to address the morphological overlap in certain species.

In the African species there are generally two “groupings” accepted and described by Lotz (1994). These are the (1) the geometricus species-group (L. rhodesiensis; L. geometricus) and (2) the tredecimguttatus species-group (L. tredecimguttatus; Latrodectus cinctus; L. indistinctus; L. karrooensis; L. renivulvatus; L. pallidus). These two groupings are more commonly referred to as Brown Button Spiders and Black Button Spiders respectively, although we don’t personally like using these “colour” terms. The Phinda button spider genetically is closest to the L. geometricus group, although visually resembles most closely certain members of the L. tredecimguttatus group. The Phinda button spider can be diagnosed from the other African species by the presence of both a distinct red marking on the ventral surface of the abdomen and a red stripe on the posterior dorsal surface of the abdomen. This species appears to be unique in that it produces a large egg case which is purple in colour when first produced, progressively fading to grey before the spiderlings emerge, while other African species either have a small white spikey egg sac or a large smooth or woolly white egg sac.

Mature males of the Phinda button spider are generally similar to or slightly smaller than other African species. The males can be diagnosed from other African species by having a yellow-white ventral marking anterior to the spinnerets and a yellow-white transverse ventral marking near the book lungs.

Mature male Phinda button spider. Photo by Luke Verburgt

Mature male Phinda button spider. Photo by Luke Verburgt

We then had to separate this species from all other Latrodectus species worldwide. This was quite an arduous task as some recognised species have very little information recorded and the genus as a whole needs to be revised. However, through persistence and gaining access to type specimens when possible, we were able to eliminate all previously described species. We were able to conclude that this was indeed a new species.

Almost all the specimens found in the wild were in tree hollows higher than 80cm off the ground. The one exception was found at 50cm above the ground. This differs from other African species as their refuges tend to be much closer to the ground.

This entire process has consumed our daily lives for a while now, but with the publication imminent, it will seem strange to move on to the next discovery. Finding something as unique and special as the Phinda button spider simply showcases the possibilities of what might still be out there waiting to be found. I hope that the next scientist, amateur arachnologist or arthropod-crazy hobbyist can get to experience the same joy we did in finding the Phinda button spider.

Sharing my house with wasps

In the South African bush, I've often been forced to share my home with various creatures, but never before with so many wasps. Since we moved from Ndumu GR to Hluhluwe area just over a year ago, I have been surprised by the abundance of the potter wasp Synagris analis. Within a few days of the move, these tiny "drones" did not hesitate to enter and build their nests inside our house. I realised that this was an excellent opportunity to observe them more closely.

Synagris analis  feeding on nectar in my garden.

Synagris analis feeding on nectar in my garden.

Each and every morning, year round, as soon as the doors are opened, they begin the incessant work of collecting mud to start building  or expanding their nests, only stopping late in the afternoon.

The nests have mostly multiple cells. Mud is applied one layer at a time, requiring a tremendous amount of mud-collecting trips. A single egg is oviposited suspending on the inside surface of the cell.

Unlike most eumenines (potter wasps), Synagris analis are progressive provisioning wasps. This means they protect and feed their brood as it develops - other potter wasp species stock all the food their brood need and leave them to develop and grow without parental care.

Once the cell is built and the egg is laid, the Synagris analis sits inside the cell and keeps parasitoids and other predators away, and maintains the nest. After the larva hatches, the mother then constantly provides caterpillars for feeding. Cells are only closed after the larva is ready to pupate and once reaching maturity, it breaks out.
 

A nest with three cells, with one larva under development (top left), one pupating (top right) and a vacant cell by an emerged adult (bottom).

A nest with three cells, with one larva under development (top left), one pupating (top right) and a vacant cell by an emerged adult (bottom).

 Very often, we run into them as they come and go during the day, but they don't seem to be bothered by our presence. The biggest nests are located in our kitchen where I observed some oddities such as two females fighting a territorial battle so seriously that they both ended up on the floor still fighting.

kitchen's nest, with a few vacant cells by emerged adults and a mother guarding her larva (bottom right).

kitchen's nest, with a few vacant cells by emerged adults and a mother guarding her larva (bottom right).

Many different species were also observed using the same nest including another potter wasp Tricarinodynerus guerinii and a solitary bee, with a velvet ant species (Mutillidae) parasitizing some of the brood.

Synagris analis  and solitary bee using the same nest.

Synagris analis and solitary bee using the same nest.

A third cell under construction.

A third cell under construction.

 Currently, a S. analis has started to expand her nest in my bedroom. My husband had a good laugh with this particular individual - when he opened the door to come out of the room, the wasp had been sitting on the floor patiently waiting for the door to be opened so she could continue with her nest building. He said it felt like they exchanged a moment as she then calmly flew up and past him and straight to the nest in an adjoining room.

Synagris analis  inspecting her nest in our bedroom. 

Synagris analis inspecting her nest in our bedroom. 

 

Unfortunately, every now and then I find a few S. analis struggling or already dead, either lost in the maze of a human structure (the newbies) or with their usual doorways and windows closed due to winter weather. Flying costs energy ("time is honey!") and if one is trapped in the house for too long, death is certain. I have managed to save many by feeding them molasses. It is incredible to see how fast these animals can recover.
 

They have quickly become part of our daily life and watching them go about their business brings a huge amount of joy. Despite our close proximity and regularly bumping into each other, no one in the house has ever been stung by one of these beautiful animals and they are clean, peaceful and industrious - the perfect roommate!

 

Masters of disguise

The amount of small wildlife that lives right under my nose is probably countless. It blows my mind every time I stop to think about what is watching my every move at this very moment. Some animals are so well camouflaged that they simply seem to not be there at all, unless you accidentally manage to spot them, like this bark spider and stick insect, both from Tembe Elephant Park.
 

Camouflage - this bark spider ( Caerostris  sp.) was accidentally spotted by my dear husband at Tembe's research camp.  

Camouflage - this bark spider (Caerostris sp.) was accidentally spotted by my dear husband at Tembe's research camp.
 

A stick insect from Tembe Elephant Park.  Photo by Hayden Rattray

A stick insect from Tembe Elephant Park.

Photo by Hayden Rattray

When it comes to defensive mimicry, the leaf katydid nymph from the genus Eurycorypha, is an extraordinary example. I found one amongst  spiny sugar ants (Polyrhachis spp.) around some flowers in Tembe Elephant Park, but I wasn't certain if it was there by coincidence or on purpose. Recently, a very similar species from Gorongosa National Park (if not the same) was posted on Facebook by Piotr Naskrecki, and he mentioned that the katydid nymph was mimicking Polyrhachis ants. I couldn't agree more with the Orthoptera "guru" -  when the green coloration underneath the katydid is back-dropped against foliage, it creates the illusion of an ant petiole (waist) with spines just as in Polyrhachis ant species.  But how these "baby" katydids remain undetected around an ant colony is something intriguing. Ants are social insects that rely on pheromones to recognize each other, and are extremely hostile towards intruders. This is a behaviour that can be exploited through chemical mimicry. Certain insects produce pheromones to confuse or mislead the ants into believing they are one of them or just part of the background. Not only does this allow for them to safely hide amongst greater numbers, but the insect further gets the protection of its "family mates".

Ant-mimicking katydid nymph ( Eurycorypha  sp.) from Tembe.

Ant-mimicking katydid nymph (Eurycorypha sp.) from Tembe.

By the time they reach maturity, the once ant-mimicking katydids grow into leaf-mimicking katydids.

An adult  Eurycorypha  sp. (leaf katydid) from Ndumo Game Reserve.

An adult Eurycorypha sp. (leaf katydid) from Ndumo Game Reserve.

 

Mantises are also magnificent masters of disguise, blending into their surroundings to ambush prey or to avoid becoming one. 

African ghost mantis  (P  hyllocrania paradoxa).   Photo: Zephian Alberts

African ghost mantis (Phyllocrania paradoxa).

Photo: Zephian Alberts

African twig mantis ( Popa spurca ) from Tembe Elephant Park.

African twig mantis (Popa spurca) from Tembe Elephant Park.

The flower mantises are practically flowers themselves. Their flower resemblance is so good that insects attempt to "pollinate" them, only to find themselves eaten alive.  
This one in particular is the nymph of an eyed-flower mantis (Pseudocreobotra wahlbergi), reasonably common in the Zululand region. Their common name has to do with the eyespot marking they develop on each fore wing after reaching maturity. These eyespots are used in threat display to frighten potential predators.

Eyed-flower mantis nymph  (  Pseudocreobotra wahlbergi),  an example of aggressive mimicry.  Photo: Zephian Alberts

Eyed-flower mantis nymph (Pseudocreobotra wahlbergi), an example of aggressive mimicry.

Photo: Zephian Alberts

Now look closer...

Unknown lichen-mimicking reduviid nymph, from Tembe.

Unknown lichen-mimicking reduviid nymph, from Tembe.

There is an assassin bug nymph (family Reduviidae) on this Usea lichen, perfectly blending in. This unbelievable mini beast was found by the lovely myrmecologist Dr Heather Campbell, while doing her research at Tembe Elephant Park. How she managed to spot this little creature, I have no idea! I've been searching through Usnea lichen since then, to no avail.

We have still not been able to identify this incredible critter. However, it is likely that this species has already been described in its adult form, but in this early stage, it is hard to determine species as they can change so drastically.

Nature will never cease to amaze me!

Beetle Juice

When talking about beetles, many of us don't think of them as being threatening creatures. Spiders for example, are the object of ancient fear even though the majority of them are quite harmless. But some beetles are far from innocent.

Ground beetles (family Carabidae), are known to be excellent predators from their larval stage onward. The larger ground beetle species in the tribe Anthiini are fast moving, equipped with powerful mandibles and the incredible ability of ejecting a caustic spray in self-defense. This noxious secretion is produced by pygidial glands located in their abdomen, and can be extremely unpleasant as I once experienced.                

The day I met Termophilum burchelli, also known in South Africa as "oogpister" ("eye pisser"), it was not a friendly encounter. I saw a beautiful insect (with warning colours I enthusiastically ignored), rushing towards the thick bushes, so I ran and caught it bare handed. Not only was I bitten by the poor terrified creature....but I also had my face covered by an unpleasant acidic spray that made it burn terribly. I immediately ran into the house with my eyes barely opened to wash it off with water. Here is the "culprit" on the run:
 

 

"Oogpister"Termophilum burchelli, from Tembe Elephant Park

This poor little man also had a run with a ground beetle... 

Photo by Val Gunter

 

 

Cypholoba graphipteroides, from Zululand Rhino Reserve. 


Another beetle that packs a punch (and was underestimated by me) is the bombardier ant's guest beetle (Cerapterus sp.). Like most paussines, they are myrmecophiles (associated with ants, hence common name), living among the ant's brood on which immature and adult beetles feed. The glandular hairs from their body and antennae, produce an aromatic secretion that is attractive to ants, allowing them to live within their nest. But it is their defense mechanism that really blows my mind. If molested, these formidable beetles can bombard a boiling-hot chemical spray from their abdomen in visible, and incredibly, audible explosive bursts, like a mini atomic weapon. 

Bombardier ant's guest beetle (Cerapterus sp.) from Tembe Elephant Park


During reproduction time, mature males leave the ants nest and are often attracted to lights, the reason why some of them would find their way into my old house in Tembe. In summer our house used to get so crowded with insects that we would spend hours photographing and relocating them (my paradise!).  So when I saw those cute little beetles climbing on the wall I grabbed one of them without hesitation and had a strange sensation; my finger tips felt burnt and were stained brown. Not certain of what had just happened, I took it outside to have a better understanding. Poking it gently, it sprayed a gaseous cloud from all around its abdomen - just like a cartoon with mini atomic cloud and "puff" sound and all. Not only is the gas an irritant, but it is hotter than boiling water. It is believed that they use their hard wing covers (elytra) as a surface to bounce the hot spray to make this defensive cloud around their bodies. Definitely one of the most awesome little beetles out there. It packs a punch, and earns respect!
 

The fly of dreams

It was a rainy day last summer in Zululand, when we got invited by our friend Chris Kelly to spend the night in his house at Zululand Rhino Reserve.  As we arrived there, night was already falling and all I could think about was the small wildlife that would arise after that rain.
Not much was expected from me but to my surprise it turned out to be one of the best nights of my life, considering that I was still having my supper when suddenly all sorts of insects started to come, attracted to the light above me.  I had to stop eating - not because they were bothering me, but because it was simply astonishing! Just to begin with, there was particularly a ridiculous amount of longhorn beetles (some were even mating on my plate), along with moths, mantids, arachnids, millipedes......I took so many pictures that I almost ran out of memory and went to bed with a smile on my face - what a wonderful night! But the best was yet to come. Around 6:00 am Chris woke me up to show me around. He had accidentally left the lights on and windows opened, and the entire place was covered with the coolest invertebrates! One of them made my heart skip a beat... for the first time in my life I got to meet this spectacular animal, the rhinoceros bot fly (Gyrostigma rhinocerontis).  

Gyrostigma rhinocerontis  (rhino bot fly) from Zululand Rhino Reserve

Gyrostigma rhinocerontis (rhino bot fly) from Zululand Rhino Reserve

I was still half asleep and refused to believe it was right in front of me, an elusive animal that most people won't get a chance to ever see unless living around rhinos; even then, the chances are quite slim. The rhinoceros bot fly is definitely the largest fly I've ever seen and the largest in Africa. It lays its eggs around the horn and face of the rhino. Once they hatch, the tiny larvae likely enter through the mouth and nasal cavity and feeds on the tissue of the rhinos gut. Their larvae develop specifically inside the rhinoceros' stomach ( black or white rhino) until they are mature enough to pass through the digestive tract  and be excreted with the faeces to pupate. I have searched through rhino dung looking for pupating flies to no avail. It is very likely they burrow under the dung piles to pupate. Once emerged, these flies do not feed, so their lives are short and dedicated to finding a mate to start a new life cycle. 

 

Gyrostigma rhinocerontis  (rhino bot fly) eggs at the base of a white rhino horn

Gyrostigma rhinocerontis (rhino bot fly) eggs at the base of a white rhino horn

With the amount of rhinos being killed, species such as the rhinoceros bot fly, are also being decimated. Losing rhinos to extinction will cause the loss of so many linked species and the loss of biodiversity will be massive. Saving rhinos saves rhino bot flies and other cryptic creatures.