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Rare spider bred in captivity for the first time at Bristol Zoo

The babies cling to their mother's back. Photo: Bristol Zoo Gardens

One of the rarest spiders in the world has been bred in captivity at Bristol Zoo in a world first.

More than 1,000 tiny Desertas wolf spiderlings have hatched in the Zoo’s Bug World. Some of the babies have even been hand-reared by dedicated keepers from tiny eggs.

Desertas wolf spiders are classified as Critically Endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. Credit: Bristol Zoo Gardens

In the wild there is thought to be a population of just 4000 adult spiders, which are only found in one valley on one of the Desertas Islands, near Madeira, Portugal. So the hatchings are a boost for the species and it is hoped that some of the spiderlings can be returned to their native habitat in the future to boost dwindling numbers in the wild. They are under threat because of habitat loss, an invasive grass is binding the soil where they burrow and blocking their natural shelters.

The baby spiders are just 4mm in diameter but grow to be huge, impressive-looking black and white adults up to 12cm in size with a body size of 4cm.

These babies will grow to 12cm! Credit: Bristol Zoo Gardens

Bristol Zoo has joined forces with Instituto das Florestas e Conservação de Natureza (IFCN) and the IUCN to develop a conservation strategy to protect the species in an effort to prevent it becoming extinct.

Last year, as part of the conservation effort, Bristol Zoo’s Curator of Invertebrates, Mark Bushell, travelled to Desertas Grande with Zoo vet Richard Saunders and collected 25 Desertas wolf spiders to be brought back to the Zoo to breed as a ‘safety net’ population.

Because this was the first time this species had ever been taken into captivity to breed, it was a steep learning curve. After some of the female spiders were mated, it was an anxious wait to see if they would produce egg sacs. We were thrilled when they did, and to see the tiny spiderlings emerge was fantastic.

One single catastrophic event could wipe out the species entirely. Now we have successfully created a ‘safety net’ population here at Bristol Zoo to help safeguard this impressive creature for the future.

– Mark Bushell, Bristol Zoo’s Curator of Invertebrates

Bristol Zoo now plans to send hundreds of the tiny spiderlings to other Zoos in the UK and Europe to set up further breeding groups as part of a collaborative conservation programme for the species.