Apologies to a spider

Imagine holding in your hand, or in your thoughts, something so precious that you are no longer in peaceful control. Your hands may shake; your heart might race. I expect you’ve had that feeling, and worried that you might be more likely to fumble it precisely because the thing is so precious. This just happened to me with a spider: I fumbled it. As I’ve been mourning the loss, I have been surprised at why it hurts so much. I feel I’ve hurt a whole species of spider.

The spider to whom I’m apologizing.

Yesterday, Kiran and I were in Singapore’s wondrous Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, working to discover what jumping spiders are there. I was looking for them using a beat sheet — a square of fabric stretched with tent poles, held beneath vegetation. I shook a tangle of vines and dead leaves and sticks and living plants, and onto the sheet fell debris of various kinds, along with some little animals: insects, spiders, and crustaceans.

There in the middle were two tiny jumping spiders, so tiny that they looked wrong. They would have been small even if they were babies, but they seemed to have the proportions and movements of more mature spiders, which made them seem even smaller, Lilliputian. Even though I assumed they were juveniles, they intrigued me enough that I collected them into a vial, to examine when I came back to civilization. Normally, I don’t collect immature spiders, as they are too difficult to identify. I promptly forgot about them and continued the sampling.

Last night, back in my room, I looked at them as I sorted through the vials of spiders collected, and was shocked to see they were both adults, a male and female. The male is about 1.3 mm long, the female about 1.6 mm, measured from photos of the spiders alive. This puts them among the smallest known adult jumping spiders. Here’s the male on a Singaporean coin.

New tiny jumping spider, on Singaporean coin. This is an adult male.

I’d never seen any spiders like this before. Those of us who explore biodiversity in the wild usually don’t know that something is new until examining it carefully (e.g. under a microscope) and consulting the literature. But these I immediately knew were likely new species, and perhaps even so distinct that we would likely call them a new genus. Here are more photos of the male:

The tiny male.

And here are photos of the female:

The tiny female.

With their size and compact body, they don’t look familiar at all. I can’t think of anything already known from Asia that they could be. I suspect these are the first two collected specimens of a new genus of jumping spider. I don’t even know what general group they belong to — they could be euophryines, or hasariines, or something else. (Salticid geeks: the palps are not big, nor do they look complex enough to be eupoines.)

My heart raced. I started to think: Oh, what if they die overnight (unlikely, but possible if they are very sensitive), and I don’t get a chance to take a photo. So I decided to take photos, even though I was really tired. I carefully prepared a safe open space on the white table to take the photos, so that even if they started hopping and running, I could catch them before they got away. After taking photos, I thought, Oh, I should give them water, in case they need it. Even more tired at this point, I carried the male’s vial to the sink, opened the cork, dipped my forceps into the tap’s water, and dabbed it against the inside wall of the vial.

At that moment the tiny male, unexpectedly, jumped onto the forceps and started running up it. Instantly I could see the danger — I couldn’t close the vial with the forceps, but taking out the forceps would bring him out above the sink. My instinct to get him to a safe place kicked in, so I rushed the three meters to the white table. Three meters over a black and dark brown floor in a poorly lit room with a 1.3 mm spider making a mad dash for escape.

He succeeded. When I got to the table, he wasn’t anywhere to be seen. Fruitless searching with a head lamp came up empty. I doubt he’ll find his way back to his habitat.

His escape was followed by many thoughts, some of them about how impatient and careless I had been — should have left them until the morning; should have brought the water to the table; could have let him fall on the sink — but others about why it hurt so much. Of course, it hurt because I felt that I was stupid and a failure, but that wasn’t the dominant flavour of the pain. It was more about losing knowledge.

To learn about this species, we still have the female specimen to study, but there are two reasons the male mattered. First, a second specimen gives us some leeway for how we study them. Second, males give us extra features to look at that are often the quickest ways to identify the species and understand what it’s related to. With a male, I could know quickly what major group it belongs to just by a glance under a microscope, while we may need to get genetic data if we have only the female, and for that we’d have to sacrifice some of the body of this very tiny female. And so, with his loss we lost knowledge, about the males of his species, about the species itself.

As I brooded, I realized that I didn’t mind much my own personal loss of knowledge. Rather, I felt I have left a burden to other arachnologists to go out and search the forest for a 1.3 mm long jumping spider.

Even more importantly, by losing the male I diminished an opportunity to make the species known, which I see as a vital gift to the species. Literally, vital. If we never knew it existed, it could not factor into any of our conservation decisions. Each species is a small voice calling us to make good choices on its behalf. There may be many species, but every voice counts. We biodiversity discoverers do feel that we serve the species we discover. We introduce them to the other humans, in hopes that appreciation develops.

And so, mysterious Singaporean species of tiny striped jumping spiders, I apologize for failing to introduce you more fully to my species. And to the little male himself, I apologize for taking you from your habitat for no good reason.

UPDATE: We found more!


2 thoughts on “Apologies to a spider

  1. I know how you feel. I can remember at least twice that I have lost potential unique specimens. Great essay on a an awesome little spider. Also wish I was in the field with you!

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