World’s Oldest Known Spider Dies at 43, With Lesson for Us

A trapdoor spider in Australia spent decades tending a small burrow—a life people can learn from, scientists say.

By Stephen Leahy
Published 3 May 2018, 12:59 BST
Number 16, a recently deceased trapdoor spider in Australia, had been studied since 1974. Her long ...
Number 16, a recently deceased trapdoor spider in Australia, had been studied since 1974. Her long life changes what scientists thought they knew about the species.
Photograph by Leanda Mason

Number 16—the world’s longest-lived known spider—has died, likely killed by a wasp at the ripe old age of 43 years. She outlived the previous record holder, a 28-year-old tarantula found in Mexico. Previously, researchers believed trapdoor spiders lived 25 years. However, more important than setting a record, Number 16 offers a life-lesson on sustainability, researchers told National Geographic.

Number 16 built her burrow in the North Bungulla Reserve in southwestern Australia, when she was young. Like all female trapdoor spiders (mygalomorph spiders), she was a homebody, never leaving her burrow. She had to protect and maintain her burrow, because if it were damaged, mature trapdoor spiders cannot easily rebuild or relocate.

Trapdoor spiders are hairy tropical spiders up to 1.5 inches long (4 cm) that nest underground. Their bites can cause pain and swelling in humans. They cleverly camouflage their trapdoor and lay out trip lines so that when an insect triggers it, they leap out in surprise attack, dragging their prey into their burrow.

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In 1974, Australian arachnologist Barbara York Main included Number 16 in a study of how trapdoor spiders live in native bushland to learn about their sedentary nature and low metabolisms. As part of the study, all active burrows were checked every six months. On 31 October 2016, researchers discovered the lid of Number 16’s burrow had been pierced by a parasitic wasp and was in disrepair. Parasitic wasps implant eggs inside other insects, and when the eggs hatch the larvae feed on their host, in this case Number 16. All of her contemporaries were long gone by this time.

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Number 16 offers an example of a long life with low-level impact and frugal resource use, the study concluded. Moreover, she—and trapdoor spiders generally—cannot up and move if their home is destroyed or too badly damaged. This may offer humans a lesson in sustainable living, says lead author of the new study Leanda Mason from Curtin University in Perth.

“In contrast, humans are too rushed and unsustainable at the rate we consume and destroy resources,” Mason said via email.


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