A new spider has been discovered in southwestern China with the ability to disguise itself as a dried-up leaf. The spider, belonging to a species previously unknown to the scientific community, is believed to be the first arachnid to employ this uncanny disguise.
Arachnologist Matjaz Kuntner allegedly discovered the leaf-mimicking spider while on an evening trek through southwestern China’s Yunnan Province rainforests in 2011, reports National Geographic. The scientist’s headlamp picked out a delicate strand of spider silk among the branches of trees.
“If there’s a web, there’s a spider,” Kuntner explained.
The strand of silk appeared to link a leaf to a tree branch, though after looking closely, Kuntner realized that the dangling leaf was, in fact, a cleverly disguised spider. The scientist immediately speculated that the trek team may have stumbled upon a brand-new species.
Kuntner, of the Smithsonian Institution and the Evolutionary Zoology Laboratory in Slovenia, described feeling “so taken aback.”
The arachnologist and his team compiled their observations into a study for the Journal of Arachnology, published in 2016, describing what they refer to as the “leaf masquerade” of the Yunnan rainforest’s newly identified species. The first leaf-mimicking spider they observed was an adult female; the second was a juvenile, identified several days later.
The spider’s back resembles a living green leaf, while its underbelly is brown, mimicking a decaying leaf. A stalk-like structure covered in fuzzy hairs protrudes from the spider’s abdomen and serves to “connect” this master of disguise to the branch from which it dangles.
“Leaf masquerading,” as Kuntner said in his 2016 study, is common among arthropods and small critters for the purpose of evading predators. It had never been observed in spiders before 2011.
Entomologist John Skelhorn, of the University of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, England, studies the art of masquerading and its function in fooling the brain, reports National Geographic. “A masquerade is much more likely to be successful if there are lots of examples of their disguise around them,” Skelhorn explained.
The Chinese leaf-mimicking spider, brownish-green in color with markings that resemble the veins of a leaf, is expertly concealed among leafy branches and the browning, dead leaves that scatter the rainforest floor.
“Its disguise is so good that it might explain why so few of these spiders have been collected,” Kuntner speculated. “Even trained scientists have a hard time spotting them.”
According to Kuntner’s study, the spider will even drag leaves into the branches from the rainforest floor and secure them with strands of silk, adding bulk to its convincing blanket of camouflage.
“We didn’t observe that behavior but I don’t think there’s any other way for leaves to appear on little strands of silk,” Kuntner told Vice. “The hung leaves were sort of a giveaway that it had to be a spider,” he added, “and one of the leaves, of course, turned out not to be a leaf at all.”
The leaf-mimicking spider is an orb weaver, drawing similarities to the Poltys genus of orb spiders, a group containing over 3,000 distinct species. One very famous cousin, Araneus cavaticus, was the barn spider—think Charlotte from the classic children’s novel “Charlotte’s Web” by E. B. White.
However, as of 2020, the Chinese leaf-mimicking spider has yet to receive its official scientific classification. Kuntner explained that “more material and taxonomic studies” are needed.
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