Science

'Extraordinary' fossil sheds light on origins of spiders

'Extraordinary' fossil sheds light on origins of spiders”

"It must have lived for about 200 million years side-by-side with spiders, but we've never found a fossil of one of these [before] that's younger than 295 million years", said Dr Garwood, from Manchester's School of Earth and Environmental Sciences.

"We've not found fossils before that showed this, and so finding this now was a huge (but really fantastic) surprise". The Chimerarachne turned up in Burmese amber, one of the few materials conducive to spider fossils.

The Chimerarachne looks an terrible lot like a spider: it has four pairs of walking legs, fangs, silk-spinning spinnerets at the rear, and pedipalps at the front.

An artist's rendering of what the prehistoric spider might have looked like

He 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 - therefore, all the insects found in it were much older than first thought". The animal itself is only two and a half millimeters long, with its tail reaching three millimeters.

After closely scrutinizing the critters, scientists have determined they're likely a sort of proto-spider, not quite a proper arachnid, but a bridge between today's eight-legged insect-hunters and a more primitive species.

Dr. Ricardo Perez-De-La Fuente, of the Oxford Museum of Natural History, said that the incredible fossils will play an important role in deciphering the puzzle of the evolution of spiders and allied groups. The other claims that this new species may instead represent a very early branch of modern-day spiders. This latest collection of finds ended up with two different research groups at the Nanjing Institute of Geology and Palaeontology.

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For now, researchers disagree on the exact placement of the part-spider, part-scorpion critter. Note the long tail-like appendage.

The finding has been described in a paper appearing in Nature Ecology and Evolution by an worldwide team, including Paul Selden of the Paleontological Institute and Department of Geology at the University of Kansas. A study in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution describes the tail as "whip-like" and says it hints at a previously unknown "lineage of tailed spiders" going back millions of years.

The new animal, called Chimerarachne after the Greek mythological Chimera, a hybrid creature composed of the parts of more than one animal, lies one step closer to modern spiders on account of its possession of spinning organs.

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"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".

Diying Huang, the researcher behind the second paper, noted that the arachnid had spinnerets but it may not have woven webs like spiders do.

The fossils are now so well preserved that, one can easily observe the head, fangs, male pedipalps, their legs and spinner rest at their back.

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Amber can give us an unprecedented view into prehistoric life, preserving softer elements that regular fossilization just can't. It makes us wonder if these may still be alive today.



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