What would you do with a huge, venomous spider in your garden?
This KZN couple befriended it, and made a discovery about it that has changed their lives
For more than four years, spiders have consumed the lives of KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) couple Barbara Garcia and Clinton Wright.
The couple and their young son have raised about 6,400 spiderlings.
So it was inevitable the Wrights would announce they had found a new species of the button spider.
“We at WTF Entomology, part of Wild Tomorrow Fund, are proud to announce our recent discovery of a new forest dwelling widow species which we have called the Phinda button spider.”
“Although a scientific name has been chosen, we will only release it once the species description has been published, which is currently under review,” Barbara said in her blog.
The Phinda button spider is genetically closest to the L. geometricus group which is venomous but less deadly than the black widow. In other words, a bite is likely to leave you sore.
The Brazilian woman lives in Zululand with her husband, an ecologist, and their son, Ricky.
Their organisation’s work is to protect the biodiversity of the region.
In her lengthy blog post, Wright explained that in February 2014, they received a call from Naomi Schutte, the wife of Tembe Elephant Park manager.
“We had asked them to let us know if they saw anything interesting that crawls on six or eight legs. Naomi had found a cool-looking spider in the hollow of a tree in her garden.”
“We rushed to see it first thing in the morning. This is how the first specimen was discovered in Tembe,” Wright said.
The Wrights were living and working in Tembe at the time.
“We believed it to be a new species, but it was difficult to prove with just a single specimen. We observed and monitored the spider for years until she died of old age, then we collected her and sent her to a university for identification.”
What stood out was that the Tembe specimen had laid three infertile egg sacs that were bright purple.
“We could find no other button spider around the world that had a similar coloured egg sac. However, variations and anomalies do occur in nature, and until we had more information, it was simply just a belief without proof.”
Eventually, the spider became an “afterthought” and was put on the backburner until the couple’s friend, Dr Ian Engelbrecht, an arachnid specialist, visited.
“Ian took one look at it and exclaimed: ‘Oh my God, that’s a new species.’ Finally, to have someone with extensive knowledge to recognise and confirm what we had always believed,” Wright said.
But their only specimen was sitting in a jar at a university.
The couple managed to collect more spiders.
“We spent the next year raising and feeding thousands of spiders. My young son Ricky was roped in to help find wild food – aphids, ants and fruit flies when small; termites and anything else as they grew larger – and raise the spiderlings.”
Wright and her husband researched all the Latrodectus species across the world for comparison.
“Just because this spider is new to the region or country, it doesn’t mean it couldn’t have blown in or somehow made it across from, for example, Madagascar. We had to eliminate the possibility that these were already known to science,” Wright explained.
Through persistence and thorough research, the couple were able to conclude that indeed a new species had been discovered.
“This entire process has consumed our daily lives for a while now, but with the publication imminent, it will seem strange to move on to the next discovery.
“Finding something as unique and special as the Phinda button spider simply showcases the possibilities of what might still be out there waiting to be found,” Wright said.