Alumnus credited for giant spider discovery

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A GW graduate recently made a large discovery. Literally.

Matjaz Kuntner, who obtained his Ph.D. at GW, discovered a giant golden orb-weaving spider from Africa and Madagascar after several years of researching similar species.

The giant Nephila species, as they are known, are “extremely rare” giant spiders, with leg spans that can reach up to five inches.

Kuntner, a Smithsonian research associate and chair of the Institute of Biology of the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts, discovered the species with with Jonathan Coddington, senior scientist and curator in the Department of Entomology at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.

Nephila spiders are notable for being the largest web-spinning spiders; they make the largest orb webs of any species, which often exceed three feet in diameter. They are also feature extreme sexual size dimorphism and sexual biology. The weavers are common throughout the tropics and subtropics and thousands of Nephila specimens have been collected and placed in natural history museums.

Kuntner said it was a long, and often disappointing road to discover the giant spider. He first examined the Nephila species in 2000, and traveled to South Africa several times searching for the elusive spider.

“During several expeditions to South Africa and Madagascar I failed to find these spiders alive,” Kuntner, who is currently in Slovenia, said in an e-mail.

In 2003, a specimen in Madagascar revived hopes that the spider was not a hybrid or extinct species, as scientists had feared. South African scientists recently discovered a male and two females in the Teme Elephant Park, confirming that the spiders were indeed a new species.

“Jonathan Coddingon and I then described this as a new species and reconstructed size evolution in Nephilidae, which showed that the new species females are the largest of all orb spinners,” Kuntner said.

Kuntner said the new species was named after his best friend Andrej Komac, who died in an accident around the time of the discoveries.

“My friend, himself a scientist, encouraged me to tackle this Ph.D., but did not live to see the discoveries made,” Kuntner said. “He was a big inspiration, and a great friend, thus it was logical to name this new species to his memory.”

Kuntner and Coddington urge the public to find new populations of N. komaci in Africa or Madagascar, both to facilitate more research on the group, but also because the species seems to be extremely rare. “

We fear the species might be endangered, as its only definite habitat is a sand forest in Tembe Elephant Park in KwaZulu-Natal,” Coddington said in a news release about the discovery. “Our data suggest that the species is not abundant, its range is restricted and all known localities lie within two endangered biodiversity hotspots: Maputaland and Madagascar.”

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