Scientists uncover shady web selling spiders online

At first, it looks like any other unboxing video on YouTube: a young man presents the viewer with a sealed box, expresses his excitement at what might be inside, and removes the packing tape .

But instead of pulling out a collectible toy or signature sneaker, he carefully unboxes seven live tarantulas, zooming close enough to showcase the wispy hairs of their multi-jointed legs.

The tarantulas were the highlight of a mail-order spider “mystery box,” a bio-bag that has become a popular offering in the burgeoning arachnid economy, much of which now rightfully exists on the website.

“You can buy yourself a mysterious gift of mysterious spiders,” said Alice Hughes, a conservation biologist at the University of Hong Kong. “It’s like getting your deck of Pokemon cards: you could get a super rare one, or you could get a bunch of random stuff.”

In a new paper, published Thursday in Communications Biology, Dr. Hughes and his colleagues shed light on the largely unregulated trade in creatures that prefer to hide in the dark. Their analysis of online sales listings revealed more than 1,200 species of spiders, scorpions and other arachnids; only 2% of them are subject to international trade regulations, the researchers report.

“Arachnids are heavily traded,” Dr Hughes said. “And it seems to go completely under the radar.”

Many organisms on the arachnid market appear to have been wild-caught rather than captive-bred, the study found, and the ecological impact of harvesting them remains unknown.

“They’re just being culled willy-nilly in large numbers,” said Anne Danielson-Francois, an arachnologist and behavioral ecologist at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, who was not involved in the new research. She added, “They’re not that unlimited resource.”

Although the wildlife trade is a major threat to the world’s wildlife, regulation and public attention tend to focus mainly on well-known charismatic animals, such as elephants, parrots and sea turtles. .

But there is a large and growing demand for invertebrates, experts say, and arachnids are popular pets. They’re a cinch to ship – “You can literally mail an envelope of little spiders,” Dr Hughes said – and many species are relatively easy to care for.

“They don’t bark, they don’t need to roam – you can fit a simple arachnid in a five gallon tank on your shelf,” said Ernest Cooper, an independent expert on wildlife trade in Canada. “They have fascinating behaviors. Some have bright colors.

To learn more about the scale of the global trade in arachnids, the authors of the new paper used a handful of search terms – ‘spider’, ‘scorpion’, ‘arachnid’ – in nine languages ​​to identify websites likely to sell animals.

After eliminating stores selling spider shovels or Spider-Man collectibles, they scraped data from the remaining sites to generate a list of arachnid species to sell online. (They also used the Internet Archive to find historical sales listings dating back to 2002.)

On these sites, the study found a total of 1,248 species of arachnids currently or previously for sale. The list included a few standouts, such as the huge Asian forest scorpion and the striped zebra tarantula from Costa Rica. But it also had a few surprises, like daddy’s long-legged spiders, common dwellers in basements across America.

“They are literally balls with legs – little balls with legs,” said Caroline Fukushima, postdoctoral researcher at the Finnish Museum of Natural History and author of the paper. “You can’t impress anyone with that.”

Compared to numerous online listings, a commercial database from the US Fish and Wildlife Service only included 267 species of arachnids, the scientists found. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES, which regulates international trade in a variety of plant and animal species, had just 30 species in its database on trade.

(Individual nations may have their own regulations, and US authorities sometimes intercept arachnids that arrive without the proper paperwork. Dr. Danielson-Francois once received a box full of seized emperor scorpions that authorities sought to offload.)

The online market is changing rapidly, with new species of arachnids hitting stores soon after they were first described by scientists. Nearly 200 of the species discovered since 2000 are already on the market; dozens were available a year or two after they were first described, the researchers found.

“It suggests that people go out in the field, and they find something new and they just pick it up and then put it online to sell it,” Dr. Danielson-Francois said.

Collectors can also buy species that are not yet known to science. Dr. Hughes and his colleagues have identified about 100 types of arachnids in trade that have been consistently described as variants of known species, such as the “Vietnamese blue tarantula”. (“Not for beginners,” warns the Reptile Rapture site. “Very defensive.”) But in many cases, these “variants” may actually be distinct new species, the scientists said.

In a separate analysis of US Fish and Wildlife records, researchers found that about two-thirds of individual arachnids had been wild-caught. Many were shipped from countries they are not known to have originated from, suggesting they may have been laundered across national borders, Dr Hughes said.

The study has limitations. This is not an exhaustive inventory of all arachnid species available for purchase, and not all online listings may translate to actual sales, outside experts have warned.

And the ecological effects of this trade are difficult to determine, in part because so little is known about arachnids. “We often don’t really understand the distribution of many of these species, let alone precisely where they are, what they need to survive,” said Sarina Jepsen, who leads the endangered species program. to the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, an international nonprofit.

But many arachnid species seem to be confined to small geographic regions; some, like tarantulas, mature slowly and have a long lifespan. “You can think of them as the rhinoceros or the panda of the arachnid world,” said Dr. Danielson-François. “It is possible that local populations will become extinct when poached.”

In another recent study, researchers at Cornell University found several endangered species of tarantulas being sold online.

Protecting arachnids will require more of everything, experts said: more regulation, more research into arachnid ecology and more data on the precise species that are being imported into and exported from specific countries – and in what quantities.

“Are there any species we should be particularly concerned about? says Dr. Cooper. “Are there species that are hammered in large numbers every year? Not all species are equal.

In the meantime, experts encouraged arachnid enthusiasts to do their homework before acquiring new organisms, making sure they know where the animals came from and whether they were bred in captivity or caught in the wild. nature.

“We, as end consumers, need to think about our role in conserving these animals that we love so much,” Dr Fukushima said.

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