13 September 2010

The return of the spiders ...

A large spider from our basement preserved in alcohol.

In September 2007, following a torrential rain storm I discovered about eight large, black hairy spiders in the basement of our house in Tunis. A friend kindly captured them with the help of a metal litter picker and put them in a large glass jar and took them to the Ministry of Agriculture, Department of Entomology. I know that spiders are not insects, but there did not appear to be a department specialising in arachnids (spiders).  At the Department of Entomology they were wrongly identified as tarantulas. I say wrongly, as following their identification I wrote to the British Tarantula Society and when I sent them a photograph of the spiders in question I was told by them that it was not a tarantula of the Family Theraphosidae.

I was told that identification from a photograph was not always accurate and after much research I managed to contact two arachnologists one who is based in Holland and the other in Canada. They asked me to send either dead or alive specimens so that they could correctly identify the spiders in question. However, to date, I have not done this as I am afraid that I may be breaching the regulations of CITES, (Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora). On the CITES website it says that "persons illegally importing or exporting wildlife specimens may be prosecuted".  I do not wish to break any laws in my desire to have the spiders in my basement identified.  As I cannot be sure that the spider  specimens which I have collected from our basement are not in fact an indangered species.

The spider sightings in our basement and garden have become an annual past-time. Every autumn following the first torrential rains in September the spiders reappear. I have since learnt that these are most probably adult males who have left their burrows and are looking for mates.

I have been undecided as to whether or not I ought to send dead specimens to Holland and Canada for identification purposes. I have been thinking that surely sending a dead specimen to be identified in the spirit of scientific enquiry does not equate to importing or exporting. In my mind, importing or exporting implies a commercial activity for economic gain. The arachnologist in Holland said that the spider in question may be a Tunisian Mygalomorph whereas the arachnologist in Canada thinks that it may be Hexathelidae - Macropele Calpeiana.

I put this dilemma which has been troubling me since September 2007 to scientists at the Natural History Museum website under the sub-heading of Foreign finds.  I have had several responses;

One scientist wrote and said, "I don't know the answer to your question but I would guess that sending dead specimens of animals from one country to another would, in the eyes of CITES, be as bad as sending live ones. Whether dead or alive they could still be rare, and also could be of interest to a collector or someone wanting to make up framed displays of exotic insects, for example. Can't you contact CITES?".

Another scientist wrote and said, "Hi Bronte, You could try this website -".

More recently, I've had further correspondence published on the bulletin board of the Natural History Museum and a third scientist wrote and said, "I really don't think anyone is going to pursue you under the CITES regulations for sending a few dead spiders to an expert for identification. You are doing it in a spirit of scientific enquiry rather than trying to profit from it - the "T" in CITES stands for TRADE. In any case, if your spider does turn out to be endangered, the rest of your local specimens could be better protected if you knew about it. CITES only lists 3 spiders in its appendix I and II, and these are all large tarantulas."

And finally, the fourth and last message which was sent to me on the subject said, "As you need to declare the contents of international mail on customs documents the catch-all phrase to use that proves to be effective is "dead insects/invertebrates for scientific study only - of no commercial value". That usually gets them through. The good news is that this deceased spider appears to be a mature male possibly Dipluridae, Allothele sp. ?? Let us know if you get a diagnosis."

The enclosed photographs show a spider which I came across in our garden on 6 September 2010. As you can see, it is upside down and it has two legs missing. I ought to point, that I found it in this state of disability and misfortune. When I took the photograph it was still alive but later it became dessicated in the hot midday sun and some ants carried it away. I put a match stick next to it in one of the photographs to give the photograph some form of scale. This particular specimen was small compared to the ones I've seen in the basement and in the garden of our house in previous years. Notice the distinct markings on its abdomen or Opisthosoma. There is a very good website detailing the anatomy spiders on

Figure 1: Spider specimen from our garden on 6 September 2010.  It was found upside down with two legs missing.

Figure 2: close-up of the above mentioned spider.
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