The idea that an ancient spiderlike creature with a tail longer than its body once roamed the earth might seem a walking nightmare to some.
Not for University of Kansas researcher Paul Selden, whose writings on the recently discovered 100 million-year-old species were recently published in the scientific journal Nature Ecology & Evolution.
Selden, along with colleagues from China, Germany, Virginia and the U.K., has named the critter Chimerarachne yingi, after the monstrous chimera of Greek mythology.
“I came up with this name — Chimerarachne yingi — because (what) it looked like was this animal all slapped together,” joked Selden, director of KU’s Paleontological Institute.
Unlike the fictional chimera, which supposedly comprised a lion’s head, a goat’s body and a serpent’s tail, Selden’s C. yingi didn’t breathe fire. And, though it may look terrifying, the mid-Cretaceous species wouldn’t have posed much of a threat to other creatures. Researchers aren’t even sure if the arachnid carried any venom in its long, whiplike tail.
The four amber-preserved specimens originated in northern Myanmar, where Selden said collectors have just recently begun to appreciate the life forms trapped inside amber jewels. Selden said their discovery, brought to researchers’ attention last year at China’s Nanjing Institute of Geology and Paleontology, forms a “missing link” between uraraneids, a much more ancient line of extinct spider relatives, and primitive modern-day spiders.
“When you get a missing link, you basically create two new gaps on each side of it,” Selden said. “We want to see if we can find something that came before and came after.”
The new discovery follows a prediction Selden and his colleagues made about 10 years ago when studying another tailed arachnid that had lived at least 200 million years, roughly, before the emergence of Selden’s C. yingi. The older specimen resembled a spider but lacked spinnerets, while the “missing link” arachnid possesses body parts seen on more modern spiders, including fangs, pedipalps (external sensing organs), four walking legs and silk-producing spinnerets.
The creatures were tiny, measuring just 2.5 millimeters long. The C. yingis' long, whiplike tails, which surpassed the length of their bodies by nearly half a millimeter, were likely used to navigate the world around them, Selden said.
“Chimerarachne probably used the tail much like the whip scorpion does, as a sensory device,” Selden said.
The miniscule arachnids would have lived under tree bark or at the base of trees, Selden said. And, although they had spinnerets capable of producing silk, the spiderlike critters probably didn’t build webs to lure in prey the way modern spiders do.
“It’s telling us a lot more about how the silk system of spiders developed, and the silk system is really very fundamental to spiders,” Selden said of the discovery. “They use it for a whole host of different things, and it’s what’s made them so successful.
“If it wasn’t for spiders, we’d be overrun by insects in no time at all,” Selden said. “Looking at how it evolved and came about is really interesting.”