A female of the world's most recently named tarantula species has electric-blue legs and a creamy toffee body. She's native to the state of Sarawak in Malaysia and would fit nicely in your palm. Spider fanciers were thrilled when the new species came to light. But its emergence also highlights a growing illegal trade in tarantulas and researchers' laissez-faire attitudes about dubious specimens.
The spider was described in the February issue of The Journal of the British Tarantula Society by arachnologists Ray Gabriel and Danniella Sherwood, who list their affiliation as the Hope Entomological Collection, Oxford University Museum of Natural History in the United Kingdom. They classified the spider as a new species in a new genus and named it Birupes simoroxigorum. Its genus name stems from biru, the Malay word for blue; simoroxigorum incorporates names of the children (Simon, Roxanne, and Igor) of the three European collectors who provided the specimens. They captured the animals in the forests of Sarawak and transported them to Europe. But the Forest Department of Sarawak says they lacked permits to collect or export wildlife.
"This case reflects the all-too-prevalent bio-piracy in Malaysia," says Chien Lee, a naturalist and photographer in Sarawak. With Lars Fehlandt, a German photographer, Lee found the tarantula in September 2017, about 6 weeks before the collectors did, and posted photographs online.
Sherwood says she and her co-author "had no reason to believe" that the specimens were illegal. They received two dead spiders from the collectors "in good faith, meaning that we were told they were legally collected with all appropriate paperwork needed," she wrote in an email. Science requested that Sherwood provide records of those permits, but she did not respond. Gabriel did not respond to requests for comment.
The collectors, Krzysztof Juchniewicz, Emil Piorun, and Jakub Skowronek—based in Poland and the United Kingdom—find, breed, and sell tarantulas. Juchniewicz concedes they had no permit for collection, saying he didn't know they needed one. But he insists they didn't smuggle the tarantulas out of Malaysia, saying their driver mailed the spiders to Europe. "I've got all the necessary documents" for legal import, he says. "We didn't do anything wrong." (The other two collectors didn't respond to requests for comment.)
Science reconstructed their expedition to Sarawak in October and November 2017 from the collectors' public Facebook posts, online chats with Juchniewicz provided by Fehlandt, and an interview with Juchniewicz. The three had been planning the trip for months. But they likely found out about what would make a prize catch just a few weeks earlier, on 14 September 2017, when Lee and Fehlandt posted their photos. The photographers named a nearby city as the vicinity of the sighting—a decision Lee now regrets.
After the collectors trekked many kilometers over "plenty of nights" in "every type of jungle," they triumphantly announced on Facebook that they found their target on the night of 2 November 2017. In photos, each of the three men gingerly holds the then-unnamed B. simoroxigorum. (The photos were removed after this article was published.)
Sometime after their return to Europe, Juchniewicz, Piorun, and Skowronek passed two dead specimens to Gabriel and Sherwood for identification. When the arachnologists announced the tarantula qualified as a new genus and species, Juchniewicz posted the news on his store's Facebook page, saying his greatest dream had come true.
Piorun and Skowronek are now advertising the species for sale through their online stores, asking for more than $300 for a juvenile. Peter Kirk, chairman of the British Tarantula Society in London, says he saw B. simoroxigorum spiderlings labeled as captive-bred at an exposition in the United Kingdom just a few weeks ago.
But Juchniewicz, who is based in Dewsbury, U.K., and is not selling the species, says there are no captive-bred B. simoroxigorum spiders on the market. The two animals he and the other collectors took in Sarawak died without breeding, he says. All B. simoroxigorum on the market have been caught in the wild and smuggled in "very, very big amounts" by others, he says.
"Illegal tarantula collecting is a burgeoning problem worldwide," says tarantula expert Rick West of Sooke, Canada. Collectors are meeting demand for "prettier, rarer, nastier, larger" spiders. Illegal collectors have long favored Brazil and Mexico, he says, but have begun to shift their hunts to Southeast Asia.
Engkamat Lading, deputy controller of Wildlife Sarawak, says his powers to prevent illegal trade stop at the border. Although collecting nonprotected wildlife without a permit in Sarawak is punishable with a year in prison, he says, "how to get hold of [the collectors]? They have left Sarawak." He hopes to get the three collectors banned from re-entering Sarawak.
Joseph Koh, an arachnologist at the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum in Singapore and author of several guides on spiders in Southeast Asia, says collectors sometimes dig up tarantula nests and destroy the arachnids' sites. "As such spiders are rare to begin with," Koh says, "wiping out their few remaining habitats, and destroying or capturing the juveniles, will definitely threaten the survival of such vulnerable species."
In the United States and Canada, it is a crime to violate the wildlife laws of another country, but no EU country forbids it, says Ernie Cooper, a wildlife trade specialist in Vancouver, Canada, and a member of the International Union for Conservation of Nature Spider and Scorpion Specialist Group. As a result, Cooper says, "The primary market for illegally collected or traded tarantulas is the EU." Those spiders can then easily be exported to North America, Pedro Cardoso and Caroline Fukushima, biologists at the University of Helsinki who study illegal trade in tarantulas and scorpions, wrote in an email.
The arachnologists, however, may have broken U.K. laws. In signatory countries of the Nagoya Protocol, including the United Kingdom, taxonomists must ensure that specimens they study are legal. Darren Mann, head of zoology at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, tells Science that the arachnologists who worked on the new tarantula are not staff members and that the museum won't house specimens collected illegally. Ray Hale, the British Tarantula Society's vice-chairman and an arachnologist in Sussex, adds that Gabriel and Sherwood "have been naïve in the extreme" about the sources of the specimens they examined.
Charles Leh, who retired in 2018 after 35 years as a curator at the Sarawak Museum, appreciates foreign taxonomists' contributions because there is little local interest. But he contends that Gabriel and Sherwood should have been more cautious and not used poached specimens.
Conservation of tarantulas and other spiders gets little attention from governments or advocacy groups, Cooper says. "Increased awareness of the problem might open up new opportunities" to address illegal tarantula trade, he says.
With reporting by Erik Stokstad.