We need to talk about spider conservation
Spiders need our help, and we may need to overcome our prejudices and fears to get there.
“The feeling that people have towards spiders is not unique,” says Marco Isaia, arachnologist and associate professor at the University of Turin in Italy. “Nightmares, anxieties and fears are very common reactions in ‘normal’ people,” he concedes.
Perhaps this is why spiders remain under-represented in conservation plans for the world’s endangered species. Ordinary people don’t think much about them, relatively few scientists study them, and conservation groups and governments are not doing enough to protect them.
This is a major gap in efforts to protect species – a gap with far-reaching implications. “Spider conservation efforts are particularly significant for nature conservation,” says Isaia. Spiders, he says, have enormous ecological value as food for birds and other animals. They are also important to humans, both as predators of pest species and as inspiration for drugs and engineering.
And yet, they remain neglected.
How serious is the problem? A new article by Isaia and 18 other experts examines the conservation status of 4,154 known spider species in Europe and finds that only a few benefit from national protection. Most have never even been properly assessed or studied in detail, so we don’t know much about their risk of extinction or their ecological needs.
Italy, for example, is home to more than 1,700 spider species, but less than 450 have had their conservation status assessed and only two enjoy legal protection in this country.
Greece, meanwhile, has nearly 1,300 species of spiders within its borders, but scientists have only assessed the conservation needs of 32 of them. None are legally protected.
The researchers found the same results – or the lack of results – across Europe.
“What surprised us most when assembling the data was the extremely low level of knowledge on the conservation status, the risk of extinction and the factors threatening the survival of European spider species, while Europe is one of the most studied regions in the world in terms of biodiversity, ”says Filippo Milano, lead author of the study and PhD student in the Isaia research team. “And even when the conservation status of the species was provided, information was often incomplete or out of date, resulting in assessments based on poor quality information and high levels of subjectivity.”
These are not just individual European nations; the problem is continent-wide. Researchers say only one spider – the endangered Gibraltar funnel-shaped spider (Macrothele calpeiana) from the south of the Iberian Peninsula – is protected at European level by the Bern Convention, an international treaty on the conservation of habitats and species on the continent and in certain African countries, and the European Union Habitats Directive .
And of course, this is not unique to Europe; other countries and continents fail to protect arachnids, and for similar reasons.
“Spiders are under-studied, underestimated and under attack by both the climate crisis and the humans that affect our environment,” says spider expert and science communicator Sebastian Alejandro Echeverri, who was not affiliated with the ‘study. “These are one of the most diverse groups of animals that we don’t really think about on a daily basis. There are over 48,000 species, but my experience is that most people don’t really have a sense of Aux. United States, for example, we only have 12 spiders on the endangered species list out of the thousands of species recorded here. “
This lack of information or protection at the national level affects international efforts. At the time of the research, the IUCN Red List, which includes conservation status assessments of 134,400 species worldwide, only covered 301 species of spiders, including eight from Europe. That number has since increased – to all 318 species in the order Araneae. (And perhaps revealing, it’s worth noting that the Gibraltar funnel web spider has not currently been assessed for the IUCN Red List.)
The Red List does not grant protection to any species, but it is often used by governments and conservation groups to seek protection at the national or international level.
This dearth of IUCN data looks likely to change, as one of the authors of the article is also chair of the IUCN Spiders and Scorpions Specialist Group, but they have a monumental task ahead of them.
The Web of Borders
As we see with so many other large-scale species, a transnational border is often not the friend of a spider. The document identifies several examples of species protected in one country but not in its neighbor, although they are found in both places. According to the document, only 17 species of spiders are protected by conservation legislation in two or more European countries.
“Animals are not limited by our political lines on a map,” notes Echeverri. “You can protect something here, but if this animal’s habitat extends beyond your border and the people next door either don’t know it or don’t protect its habitat in the same way, it might still being pushed to extinction even if you “try your best. “
At the same time, cross-border protection can also create problems if the legislation is based on outdated scientific data. The Gibraltar funnel web spider – the only species listed under the Bern Convention and the EU Habitats Directive – has “protection against all forms of disturbance, capture, possession, release. willful death and damage or destruction of breeding or roosting sites, “according to the paper. It is essential in its natural habitat, but at the same time, it is now spreading rapidly through the commercial olive tree trade and has been spotted in at least four countries outside its range. “In fact, it seems that the single spider protected at European level is considered an alien species in many countries,” says Milano.
How do we fix this?
Echeverri calls the study “an important call to action”. In particular, he highlights how he compares different approaches to spider assessment and conservation in each country. “It gives IUCN members and legislators a tool to say, ‘hey, this system seems to be working great, let’s get what we can from it that will work great in our country.’ “
Isaia notes that they hope this article will create a far-reaching canvas. “We hope to encourage environmental government agencies, stakeholders and policy makers to include spiders in effective conservation strategies and foster processes that can help conserve endangered spider species,” he says. Examples, he said, would include “the promotion of risk assessment procedures for spider species, or the inclusion of endangered spider species in protected area planning and action plans for protection. biodiversity ”.
But moving forward will take a lot of effort – not to mention a little money.
“There isn’t a lot of funding for naturalists to go and investigate these animals,” says Echeverri. “It’s this crisis going on within science. You don’t know much about species, so you don’t know who is there. You don’t know how many there are. You don’t know how they are. do or whatever the habitats they are in, and we need to make our conservation plans based on science. If that data doesn’t exist, even though there is a desire to do something about these animals, we can’t plan anything because we don’t. t have the fundamentals. “
Researchers hope others will take their place in understanding and protecting spiders. “Highlighting general patterns and identifying the main strengths and weaknesses of biodiversity conservation across Europe is an appropriate starting point for planning workable solutions focusing on the local context,” says Milano. “The same model can be adopted in other geographic regions and can certainly be applied to other taxonomic groups.”
And maybe along the way, their work can help inspire people who fear spiders to look at them in a different light – or even seek them out, like Project Map the Spider which asks citizen scientists to download. the locations of complex webs. woven by elusive sackcloth spiders.
Who knows, it might even inspire a new generation of arachnologists – a field of scientists currently in short supply.
“Focusing on spiders has been a very important choice in my career,” says Isaia. “There are those who, like me, see spiders as miracles of natural evolution. You can study their web, their venom, their bizarre behaviors, the interactions between different species, their role as predators, their incredible taxonomic diversity. and functional, their key role in maintaining the balance of the ecosystem. You can also use them as sources of inspiration in architecture and the visual arts. Aren’t they good reasons to find them attractive? “