The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Australia’s ancient ‘assassin spiders’ were feared extinct after fires. Then, scientists found two alive.

HANDOUT PHOTO: The Kangaroo Island assassin spider was feared extinct following the 2019-2020 bushfires (Courtesy of Dr Jessica Marsh/South Australian Museum)

With its giant jaw and piercing fangs, the Kangaroo Island assassin spider is back from reported extinction — and while experts are celebrating the rare sighting, other spiders should probably be careful, because they are exactly what this ancient predator likes to eat.

When massive bush fires swept through Australia in 2019 and 2020, claiming hundreds of lives and wiping out more than 27 million acres of land, experts predicted that more than 1 billion mammals, birds and reptiles across the country may also have been injured or killed.

Among the creatures believed to have been eradicated was the assassin spider species found on Australia’s Kangaroo Island — which was decimated in bush fires that caused widespread destruction.

But experts desperately searching for signs of life amid the destroyed landscape recently revealed that two of the spider-eating assassins were spotted on the island in September, just 2.4 miles from their last recorded habitat, offering fresh evidence that the distinctive hunters may not have been completely wiped out, as once feared.

Also called the pelican spider because of its elongated neck and powerful jaws, assassin spiders date back to Jurassic times and play a crucial part in helping regulate the ecosystem by controlling pests and pumping nutrients back into the soil while breaking down leaf litter.

Researchers said that two arachnids, a female and a juvenile, were found in leaf litter, but did not specify the exact location of their discovery. Following the sighting they were DNA tested which confirmed they were indeed Kangaroo Island assassin spiders.

“They’re vitally important to ecosystem function but they are also largely ignored,” Jessica Marsh, an arachnologist and honorary research assistant at South Australian Museum, said of the spiders.

“We have been surveying for the spiders since the fires, so it was an amazing feeling to finally find one,” she told the Guardian, adding that the search to find and protect other populations would continue.

Described by National Geographic as “little wolves” of the forest that are “brutally effective,” the arachnids are known for locking other spiders in their jaws and dangling them in the air until they are dead.

Marsh, who admitted she had an emotional connection to the creatures because of her years of research, noted that many people do not seem as invested, noting that there is “general political and public apathy towards invertebrates,” the Guardian added.

While the discovery of the two spiders is somewhat promising, Marsh said that the species’ recovery process would be challenging, due to the fact the spiders nestle in dense vegetation that will take a long time to grow back following such devastating blazes.

Other assassin spider species can also be found in Madagascar and South Africa.

Taking to social media Wednesday, Marsh told followers that finding this “bizarre, but wonderful little critter” was “one of those career highlights,” adding that leaf litter was a fascinating world to explore.

Others, however, were not as excited by the find, with one person tweeting: “ ‘Assassin’ and ‘spider’ are not words I ever want to see next to each other ever again.”

Read more:

On land, Australia’s rising heat is ‘apocalyptic.’ In the ocean, it’s worse.

Zoo director takes monkeys and pandas home to save them from deadly wildfires

Floods in Australia sent spiders scrambling for dry land. A town is now covered in webs.