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Spider man flies to Falklands.

Saturday, December 27th 2003 - 20:00 UTC
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Biologists were delighted when a new species of spider was discovered in the Falklands Islands this year.

But the excitement dissolved almost as quickly when carefully prepared specimens never made it to Britain for study. They were squashed en route. Now one of Scotland's leading spider experts is flying out to the South Atlantic to try to complete the study and record what should be one of the most important eight-legged scientific discoveries for many years.

Alastair Lavary is the head of education for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in Scotland, but is also a spider specialist. He is taking a sabbatical to find out what is really going on in the Falklands, where even more undiscovered species of spiders are thought to be waiting to be found.

With the support of the Shackleton Trust and RSPB, Mr Lavary will spend four weeks there, avoiding landmines and scratching under rocks and peering at the ground.

Mr Lavary, who has a PhD in spider ecology, became involved in the preliminary research after scientists studying beetles accidentally captured specimens of spiders. As a result, six previously unidentified arachnid species have been found, mainly of South American origin, including the new spider species. Mr Lavary is looking forward to the experience and the chance to observe specimens in their habitat, despite the dangers. Two "hot spots" for the study are in or near known landmine sites. The Argentine mines are a remnant of the 1982 war and, as their locations were never released; large areas around the capital Stanley are out of bounds.

Mr Lavary said: "The Falklands are a wild and beautiful part of the world, and I am excited by the opportunity to help with this research into spiders, which is a first for the region on this scale. I'm hopeful this study can be conducted within a safe environment given the location of landmines, both for myself and the spiders!" The Falklands conservation study is part of a continuing review of local animal and plant species, currently focusing on insects. The Falklands government recently appointed a biodiversity officer and is keen to identify and preserve the unique species found there.

As with the Galapagos Islands, the Falklands were a source of inspiration to Charles Darwin's Origin of Species, after his visit in the 19th century.

The Falklands consist of more than 200 islands, of which ten are inhabited. The scenery is somewhat similar to that of the north of Scotland and is largely peat moor lands and treeless. The Scottish comparisons, however, stop short of the dreaded midges, as the Falkland Islands have no biting insects.

Mr Lavary said: " There is a big push to identify invertebrates on the island, because up until now there has been very little work done on anything smaller than birds. The rest of what lives there is much less well known." He added: "Until now, 18 species of spider were known from the Falkland Islands, and officially recorded. The collection that I have contains 11 of those recorded species and somewhere between eight and 12 others which have never been found on the Falklands before. That is fairly typical in an under recorded place. "A few of them are almost certainly South American, and a couple don't look like anything that I have been able to find in literature anywhere at all. These could be new species. "Two of the most interesting ones that were sent over have been badly damaged. It's one of those Sod's Law situations. One of the aims of my visit is quite clearly going to have to be to get undamaged specimens. They are very delicate and very small. They measure about 2.5mm and are tiny.

"The first collection of spiders on the island was made in 1911 by a New Zealander. Since then there have been various bits and pieces of research done, and it is beginning to look like many of the very tiny species have been missed out altogether. "It is likely that the more modern techniques used now are allowing us to pick up these minute species that have been missed in the past. The normal rule of thumb is that small spiders will be present in larger numbers than bigger ones, as they make up for what they lack in bulk in the fact that there will be many more individuals.

"The new species are stunningly ordinary-looking, and would come under the category of what people in the UK commonly refer to as money spiders. "To confirm that they are new to science, I will have to go very carefully through all the literature available and check that I haven't missed a description of these species. The other line of inquiry is to get specimens from all around the world and compare what we have been catching with these examples. This will probably take between six and 12 months, depending on how many we find.

"It will also depend on how successful I am in finding someone to collaborate with. As one of the world experts is an Argentine, it might also be politically difficult, as the Falklands remain a disputed territory. Much of the literature is in either Spanish or Portuguese, and that may also pose difficulties."

He noted: "Quite often when you are looking for invertebrates, you would go to areas that have avoided disturbance and are not grazed. The minefields look absolutely perfect for hunting in but, of course, they will be off-limits. We will be working near them but not going within the areas." But despite all Mr Lavary's work, the new spiders will not be named after him.

"As yet, these species have no name," he said. "Everybody asks whether, if I do confirm they are new species, they will be named after me. It is considered extremely bad manners to do that. It is normally in honour of someone who has done something exceptional in the field. It would not be Lavery's spider."

Source: The Scotsman By James Reynolds ? Environment Correspondent.

Categories: Falkland Islands.

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