Spider man fell for jumpers

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The recently named Lapsias lorax spider got its name from the Dr.Seuss character with a yellow mustache. Courtesy W. Maddison/Beaty Museum
Wayne Maddison examines a tiny but venomous snake caught along with spiders shaken from tree branches. Snakes are one hazard Maddison faces in the tropics, along with leeches, wasps and more. Courtesy W. Maddison/Beaty Museum

At age 13, Wayne Maddison spied the metallic-green jaws of a spider marooned on a raft of vegetation floating on Lake Ontario. He rescued the young creature, and ultimately made a pet of her and one of her young. Along the way, he fell in love with their family — jumping spiders. That intense affection has never waned. Forty years later, Maddison, now scientific codirector of the Beaty Biodiversity Museum in Vancouver, is among the foremost authorities on these stealthy pouncers of the arachnid world.

Last year, Maddison tallied some 175 distinct jumping spider species as he trekked through rainforests in Borneo’s state of Sarawak. The year before he collected a unique individual in the cloud forests west of Quito, Ecuador, and recently he asked Canadians to submit potential names for this new species of the genus Lapsias. The winning entry: lorax, for the Dr. Seuss character that not only speaks for the trees but also sports a yellow mustache, just like the face of the 5-millimeter-long male spider that can leap an astounding 7.6 centimeters (about three inches).

Maddison made videos of the critter before preserving it in alcohol for DNA analysis.

“It walked strangely,” he says, “although you have to be a jumping spider geek to appreciate this.” Spiders perambulate using a combination of muscles and hydraulics: They straighten their legs by pumping blood into them, allowing the spiders to take jerky steps. But a few species are able to pump blood so efficiently that they exhibit a slow, fluid motion. The newfound L. lorax is one of these exceptions. “So when you watch it walk, it’s as if he’s a little bit drunk,” Maddison observes.

Maddison says he studies spiders primarily to probe their evolutionary history, but he considers it equally important to archive species for colleagues to view centuries from now. “It’s like we’re constructing a time machine so that we can send specimens into the future — to a time when such species no longer exist.” Janet Raloff

Dr. Wayne Maddison finds spiders from Science News on Vimeo.

Biologist Wayne Maddison demonstrates his spider-finding skills in this video shot in Ecuador on the day he found the lorax spider.
Credit: W. Maddison/Beaty Museum

Lapsias lorax behavior from Science News on Vimeo.

Before it was preserved for posterity as the only known example of its kind, the movement of this Lapsias lorax jumping spider was recorded on video.
Credit: W. Maddison/Beaty Museum

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.