Ancient arachnid: 100-million-year-old spider found trapped in amber

Artist's impression of Chimerarachne yingi

Artist's impression of Chimerarachne yingi

A newly discovered species of arachnid sporting a tail off its rear is about 100 million years old, so you're not likely to find it creeping around in the corners of your house. Amber is fossilized tree resin and is known for perfectly preserving many ancient fossils of insects and plants.

They look similar to modern-day spiders, and have fangs, four walking legs and silk-producing spinnerets.

The researchers have found four fossils of the spider entombed in chunks of amber from northern Myanmar which helped the scientists to establish a link between the modern spiders and an ancient group of arachnids that had a tail.

Despite its fearsome appearance, the fanged Chimerarachne was only about three-tenths of an inch (7.5 mm) long, more than half of which was its tail.

From the point of view of Paul Selden, Chimerarachne yingi would be an intermediate species between modern spiders with spinnerets organs but without the tail, and the very old Uraraneida (an order of arachnids, known as "spider cows") who lived between the years of 380 and 250 million BC and possessed tails but not spinnerets organs.

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But the creature, which likely walked the Earth more than 100 million years ago, also had a tail.

"Gonzalo Giribet at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Diying Huang at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Nanjing and their colleagues analysed two fossils of the animal dating to about 100 million years ago". The Chimerarachne shares an appendage with scorpions as well as similarities with modern spiders that include fangs and spinnerets.

"In the last few years, this kind of amber has become much more available and because of its age - it's a hundred million years old or older - it lets us see really far back into the past", he said. However, it also bears a long flagellum or tail.

They introduced their discovery, dubbed Chimerarachne yingi, in a pair of papers published Monday in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution.

Selden said the spider's remote habitat made it possible that tailed descendants may still be alive in Myanmar's backcountry to this day. This mix of features gave the spiders their name: a reference to a mythical creature with a lion's head and serpent-like tail.

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Scientists found the creature trapped in a piece of amber from the mid-Cretaceous period, and now believe that it's an entirely new species.

He said: "Chimerarachne could be considered as a spider".

Spiders are one of the success stories of the natural world, with more than 47,000 living species.

But the team describing the holotype of C. yingi places it within the arachnid family tree as an early true spider, citing the presence of both those well developed spinnerets and modified male pedipalps which assist with sperm transfer.

"It might even be around today if you went to search for it", said Selden. An global team of researchers from the United States, China, Germany, and the United Kingdom announced the discovery today (February 5) in two papers in Nature Ecology & Evolution. It makes us wonder if these may still be alive today.

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