'Modern' spiders walked before the dinosaurs

By Jane Hughes

By Jane Hughes

28 November 1999

Scientists have discovered that the "modern" spider has been in existence for longer than the dinosaurs.

Two finds of fossil spiders in excavations of prehistoric lakes in South Africa and Virginia, in the United States, have revealed that the modern spider was walking the earth 240 million years ago, making it three times older than previously thought.

The modern spider split from its primitive counterpart - which resembled the present-day tarantula and funnelweb spiders - in an adaptive move to catch the increasing number of airborne insects.

It shrank to an average size of one inch or smaller and its large hairy legs gradually became more slender.

As the modern spider got smaller it began to use its web as a sensory field in the air, replacing the underground strands used by primitive relations, which lived mainly in burrows.

The poisonous claws used by tarantulas and their ilk for stabbing prey as they chased it along the ground or trapped it against a tree trunk evolved into pincer-like grips, twisted together in front of the spider so that it could lift insects out of its web.

"The spider is the most abundant predator on land because it has such a large food source but it is very rare to find it in fossilised form, particularly in such a complete state," said Dr Paul Selden, a senior lecturer in palaeontology at Manchester University, who has written a paper on the fossils.

"Spiders were nimble walkers and were pretty good at not falling in water, so for every spider fossil there will be thousands of insect ones."

Spiders had evolved sufficiently to survive the catastrophic events of about 65 million years ago, when it is believed that the impact of a massive comet shrouded the earth in smog, killing off the dinosaurs and many other species.

However the spiders continued to evolve to improve their hunting and evasion techniques and today the biggest family of spiders is the jumping variety.

"The jumping spiders have got rid of webs and use their silk to make little sleeping bags instead but they spend much of the day wandering around looking for insects to jump on," said Dr Seldon.

"The trouble with a web is that it advertises the spider's presence and means they are relatively static, whereas jumping makes it easier to catch prey and escape from predators."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive / Digital Marketing Executive

£26000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A luxury beauty house with a nu...

Recruitment Genius: Housekeepers - Immediate Start

£8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This company are currently recruiting new exp...

Recruitment Genius: Head Concierge

£25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This award winning Property Man...

Recruitment Genius: Content, SEO and PPC Executive

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has ari...

Day In a Page

On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific
In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

Dame Colette Bowe - interview
When do the creative juices dry up?

When do the creative juices dry up?

David Lodge thinks he knows
The 'Cher moment' happening across fashion just now

Fashion's Cher moment

Ageing beauty will always be more classy than all that booty
Thousands of teenage girls enduring debilitating illnesses after routine school cancer vaccination

Health fears over school cancer jab

Shock new Freedom of Information figures show how thousands of girls have suffered serious symptoms after routine HPV injection
Fifa President Sepp Blatter warns his opponents: 'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

Fifa president Sepp Blatter issues defiant warning to opponents
Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report

Weather warning

Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report
LSD: Speaking to volunteer users of the drug as trials get underway to see if it cures depression and addiction

High hopes for LSD

Meet the volunteer users helping to see if it cures depression and addiction
German soldier who died fighting for UK in Battle of Waterloo should be removed from museum display and given dignified funeral, say historians

Saving Private Brandt

A Belgian museum's display of the skeleton of a soldier killed at Waterloo prompts calls for him to be given a dignified funeral