It's a Bird! It's a Spider! It's Pelican Spider!

pelican, spider
A lateral view of the body of a pelican spider (Eriauchenius workmani). Nikolaj Scharff

Sometimes animals get names for obscure, scientific taxonomy reasons. Sometimes, in a bid for attention and acclaim, they get named after celebrities. And sometimes animals get named what they get named because it just makes the most sense. Take, for instance, the pelican spider.

In 1854, arachnologists examining a 50-million-year-old piece of amber discovered the specimen of a pelican spider frozen in time. They named the spider for its look — the massive jaws and mandibles give the spider's head an appearance oddly similar to that of the large seabird. Luckily it isn't a flying spider like the pelican bird. The scientists who discovered the pelican spider assumed it was extinct, but in the late 19th century researchers discovered extant species in the Archaeidae family alive, kicking and biting in Madagascar.


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A pelican spider feeding on an unfortunate frenemy.
Nikolaj Scharff

Over the years, though, the pelican spider has not been a heavily studied spider. But that's recently changed, with a new analysis of the Eriauchenius and Madagascarchaea spider genera. Arachnologists sorted the spiders studied into 26 different species, 18 of which had never been described before this research.

Hannah M. Wood of the Department of Entomology in the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History published a report on January 11, 2018, on the spiders in the journal ZooKeys with Nikolaj Scharff of the Natural History Museum of Denmark. The team studied spiders collected through their own fieldwork in Madagascar as well as obtained from collections of museums and institutions around the globe.

These Madagascan spiders' long "necks" and jaw-like mouth parts aren't unique only because of the way they look, but also because of the way they're used to prey on other spiders. These pelican spiders use their long, fang-tipped "jaws," or chelicerae, to impale prey and then, in order to protect themselves from counterattacks, hold victims away from their bodies until they die.

"It's kind of like when your little brother's trying to hit you and you put your hand on their forehead and they can't reach you," Dr. Wood explained in an interview with The New York Times. Wood also suspects that the spiders wave their long jaws to search for the silk draglines of other spiders.

So if the pelican spider's appearance provides its name, its behavior is the source of the other name people call it — the assassin spider.