Dr KARL SHUKER

Zoologist, media consultant, and science writer, Dr Karl Shuker is also one of the best known cryptozoologists in the world. Author of such seminal works as Mystery Cats of the World (1989), The Lost Ark: New and Rediscovered Animals of the 20th Century (1993; greatly expanded in 2012 as The Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals), In Search of Prehistoric Survivors (1995), and more recently Extraordinary Animals Revisited (2007), Dr Shuker's Casebook (2008), Karl Shuker's Alien Zoo: From the Pages of Fortean Times (2010), Cats of Magic, Mythology, and Mystery (2012), and Mirabilis: A Carnival of Cryptozoology and Unnatural History (2013), his many fans have been badgering him to join the blogosphere for years. The CFZ Blog Network is proud to have finally persuaded him to do so.

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Saturday, 16 July 2011

THE HOBBIT ACTOR AND A REAL-LIFE SHELOB – OR SOMETHING PRETTY DARN CLOSE?

With my very own Shelob! (credit: Dr Karl Shuker)

British actor Dominic Monaghan has starred in many films and TV series, but is probably best-known for his role as the hobbit Merry in Peter Jackson’s spectacular ‘The Lord of the Rings’ (LOTR) trilogy of movies, based upon J.R.R. Tolkien’s monumental fantasy epic.

However, following a tip-off from a member of my regular pub quiz team (thanks Mark!; who said that pub quizzes aren’t educational?!), earlier this year I came upon a very intriguing online report previously unknown to me that suggested Dominic might have been taking his LOTR role even more seriously than expected. In LOTR, two of Merry’s fellow hobbits, Frodo and Sam, experience a life-threatening encounter with Shelob – a colossal spider. Yet whereas Shelob was fictional, the media report, which was reproduced on several websites, claimed that Dominic was planning to launch a 12-man expedition in search of a real-life mega-spider that, if proven to exist, would be the world’s largest.

Dominic Monaghan in his LOTR role as the hobbit Merry (credit: New Line Cinema Productions)

According to this report (click here to view it), which was written by Alexandru Stan and published on InOut Star’s website on 12 March 2008, the spider in question was called the hercules baboon spider, measured 14-15 inches across, and, of particular interest, was known only from a single specimen obtained in Nigeria during the early 1900s, which is now preserved in alcohol at London’s Natural History Museum.

As the Life Sciences Consultant for Guinness World Records (formerly known as The Guinness Book of Records), I am naturally well aware that the current record-holder as the world’s largest species of spider by mass is the goliath bird-eating spider Theraphosa blondi. This nocturnal burrowing species, native to wet swamps and marshy areas in the mountain rainforests of northeastern South America, boasts a leg span of up to 11 in (the diameter of a dinner plate!), and can weigh over 6 oz.

Indeed, the biggest specimen of this species on record was a 12-year-old captive female called Rosi, which sported a body length alone of 119.4 mm (4.7 in), i.e. not including its leg length, and weighed an astonishing 175 g (6.17 oz) – which is almost as heavy as six house sparrows! Consequently, any spider that allegedly exceeds these dramatic dimensions, and, as a bonus, is also virtually unknown to science, is definitely going to attract my undivided attention!

An adult female specimen of the goliath bird-eating spider Theraphosa blondi

Eager to learn more, in case Guinness’s existing record for the largest spider species by mass needed to be amended, I lost no time in researching this subject personally and also contacting a number of likely sources of further information, including the Natural History Museum itself, as well as a number of other institutions, organisations, and individuals. Over the next few weeks, a welter of information came my way, the most informative of which can be summarised as follows.

Firstly, I discovered to my surprise that in spite of the report’s claim that only a single specimen of hercules baboon spider existed, there seemed to be a veritable embarrassment of specimens out there in the pet trade, and there was even a plentiful supply of videos posted on YouTube of what were claimed to be hercules baboon spiders. Something, clearly, was amiss here – but what?

After learning of my desire to discover as much as I could regarding this enigmatic species, palaeontologist Dr Darren Naish, who shares my own interest in cryptozoological matters, sent me the following illuminating email on 16 March 2011:

"It is implicated by spider people that the things now being called 'hercules baboon spiders' are actually nothing of the sort (they're actually king baboon spiders), and that the animal that really should go with this name is indeed only known from the type specimen."

Pursuing this promising lead, I discovered that the ‘real’ hercules baboon spider is Hysterocrates hercules, which is genuinely known only from its type specimen or holotype – a female collected by a Lieutenant Abadie at Jebba in what was then Upper Niger, now Nigeria. Characterised by a black cuticle covered with a thick coating of dark olive-brown hairs, and shining with a greyish silky sheen under reflected light, as well as by having the fourth leg unthickened, this unique specimen is held at the Natural History Museum, and its species was formally described in the 14 November 1899 issue of the Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London by none other than renowned British zoologist Reginald I. Pocock.

As for the so-called hercules baboon spider specimens in the pet trade and on YouTube, these pretenders to the throne of H. hercules are indeed specimens of the related but smaller king baboon spider Pelinobius muticus (aka Citharischius crawshayi, a junior synonym), which is an East African species with a leg span of up to 8 in. So there was the first riddle concerning the hercules baboon spider duly solved.

The hercules imposter – a king baboon spider Pelinobius muticus

On 21 April, I received another very insightful email, this time from Richard Gallon, the administrator of the British Tarantula Society Study Group:

"I can confidently state that Pocock’s holotype specimen of Hysterocrates hercules (which I have measured and examined for forthcoming taxonomic papers) does not even come close to members of the genus Theraphosa in terms of leg-span or body mass.

"Pelinobius muticus females are large and bulky, but not as large as H. hercules or any Theraphosa. Indeed there are several South American genera (e.g. Pamphobeteus, Sericopelma, Lasiodora etc.) which are bigger than these African taxa."

Judging from this, Dominic’s notion that H. hercules may well be the world’s biggest spider appeared to be in error – an assumption comprehensively confirmed when I received on 21 May an email from Dr George Beccaloni of the Natural History Museum containing the following crucial details:

"With regard to the West African baboon spider Hysterocrates hercules, it is certainly very large, but the heaviest spider known is undoubtedly the 175 gram [6.17 oz] female Theraphosa blondi listed by Guinness, and the largest in terms of legspan is the giant huntsman Heteropoda maxima, from caves in Laos, which has an accurately measured maximum legspan of 300 mm [12 in]...Any claims of larger spider specimens remain to be proven - and I don't think that any baboon spider is likely to displace the current champions!"

On 3 June, Jan Beccaloni, the museum’s arachnid curator, also emailed me, kindly enclosing some information received from fellow arachnologist and theraphosid specialist Ray Gabriel from the British Tarantula Society, who stated that H. hercules is only about two-thirds the size of T. blondi.

So there it was – everyone was agreed that H. hercules was neither the heaviest species of spider nor even the species with the greatest leg span. And that seemed to be the end of the matter, until, in a subsequent email, Dr Beccaloni suggested a highly entertaining means of publicising this former controversy – by staging at the Natural History Museum a filmed comparison by volume of the type specimen of H. hercules with a suitably sizeable specimen of T. blondi, supervised by a member of the Guinness World Records (GWR) team. Needless to say, I considered this to be an excellent idea, and passed it on at once to the editor of GWR, Craig Glenday, who thought so too, and was happy to act personally in the capacity of official adjudicator.

And so it was that my original investigation of H. hercules ultimately led to a filmed ‘Battle of the Spiders’ weigh-in at the Natural History Museum later last month (June 2011), conducted by Dr George Beccaloni and witnessed by Craig Glenday for GWR. Utilising Archimedes’ Principle of liquid displacement as a means of accurately determining the volume of the challenger (the H. hercules holotype) and the defender (a hefty adult female T. blondi called Tracy, a long-deceased pet of Jan Beccaloni) as both were preserved in alcohol, the two species’ rival claims to the title of the world’s heaviest spider were finally put to the test.

The Natural History Museum’s online press release, containing a video of this historic arachnological bout, can be viewed here.

And the result? Tracy’s volume was found to be more than double that of the H. hercules holotype. In short, a straight knock-out, with T. blondi the undisputed heavyweight spider champion, retaining its title with ease.

Even so, as a nonetheless respectably (albeit not superlatively) large species yet still known only from a single specimen, H. hercules retains an air of mystique. Moreover, Dominic Monaghan never did succeed in launching an expedition to look for it. Consequently, an excellent way to bring this investigation to a satisfactory close would be for an intrepid spider seeker to pursue the hercules baboon spider in the field, as the rediscovery of this long-lost semi-Shelob is certainly long overdue! Any takers?

A model of the LOTR’s mega-spider, Shelob (credit: Dr Karl Shuker)

I wish to thank everyone who assisted me during my researches into this fascinating case, in particular Dr George and Jan Beccaloni of the Natural History Museum, Ray Gabriel and Richard Gallon from the British Tarantula Society, Craig Glenday at Guinness World Records, and Dr Darren Naish for their most welcome expertise and interest.

8 comments:

  1. Speaking of mega-spiders, I believe that Monster Quest once went into the Amazon to find a spider big enough to eat a dog. Is this true, and if so what kind of dog? Are there any other reports of this real-life Shelob? Did they find it?

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  2. What do you mean by what kind of dog?

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  3. Yes, Monsterquest produced a programme on giant arachnids, featuring solifugids brought back to Texas from Iraq by soldiers who had served there, and also re a search in the Peruvian rainforests for a mystery mega-spider said to be large enough to devour small dogs. As I haven't seen this particular episode (#31 in the series, first screened on 22 October 2008, as part of series 2), I have no idea which specific dogs were referred to, but as there has been nothing featured in the news, I assume that the team did not find any such spider!

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    1. I be that episode, the natives claim its a spider with a body length of between 3-5 feet and a leg length up to 6 feet. Its interesting because its similar to reports from Africa and Aisa about giant spiders (Ja ba fofi for instance) in the episode the conclude that its native stories to keep children away from the woods and misidentification of known species, such as the goliath. James Friel

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    2. I be that episode, the natives claim its a spider with a body length of between 3-5 feet and a leg length up to 6 feet. Its interesting because its similar to reports from Africa and Aisa about giant spiders (Ja ba fofi for instance) in the episode the conclude that its native stories to keep children away from the woods and misidentification of known species, such as the goliath. James Friel

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    3. Hi James, Yes, I wrote about the j'ba fofi in my book Extraordinary Animals Revisited, and I have covered the whole range of giant crypto-spiders, including those South American examples investigated the various TV shows, in a new book that I am writing. So look out for that! All the best, Karl

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  4. BTW, One reader thought that the spider I am holding in this post's opening photo was real - it's not, it's just a plastic model, honestly!

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  5. My uncle was a taxidermist and he had a bird eating spider in his collection. It was huge and i was facinated.

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