No place but home for baboon spiders

Author: Claire Miller

As part of your stay at Askari you visit the ‘Kinyonga Reptile Centre’ to learn about and see some of our indigenous reptiles. There is the opportunity to meet reptiles as well as other creatures such as spiders and scorpions. While many people find themselves facing their fears to handle a spider, this article explains why the spiders have much more reason to fear humans than we do them! Our fantastic regular volunteer (and journalist) Claire Miller describes the intricate details of a spider species merely trying to survive amongst human expansion.

Donald Strydom (Kinyonga Reptile Centre, Hoedspruit, South Africa) has tried everything, from taking plaster molds to rebuild a spider’s exact underground home elsewhere, to digging up entire nests for translocation. But nothing works. The one thing Strydom has learned from years of trying to protect lowveld golden brown baboon spiders (Augacephalus breyeri) is that the females are determined homebodies. It’s a lifetime commitment that puts these little-studied creatures at risk. Lowveld baboon spiders are rare, found only in a 300-km radius of Hoedspruit, near Kruger National Park, where expanding human housing and farm development are threatening their survival. “These spiders need a certain habitat, in flat areas out of floodplains, with the correct soil density balance between sand and clay, and the right density of open bush scrub veld”, according to Strydom. “This combination is exactly what we humans look for when we need to build something. People say it doesn’t matter, because the spiders will just settle in again somewhere else.” But females build their boot-shaped nest holes for life, all 35 years of it. If the nest is destroyed, the spiders remain in the open where they die or are predated. “Once they dig their hole, they won’t dig another”, Strydom explains. “We’ve been trying to relocate them for 8 years, and only once came close, where we just created a little introductory hole. The spider maintained it and made it bigger and deeper for about a year, but it wasn’t right and the spider did not survive.” The spiders are psychologically bonded not only to their hole, but also to exactly where that hole is. Its design has everything to do with the leaves that fall, the surrounding rocks, and available shade – all of which subtly influence temperature and humidity. “They have a very primitive brain and they become so programmed to that site that they can’t be programmed to another hole.” Strydom works with sympathetic landowners to inspect sites and flag nests, but it is a struggle. “They are such beautiful animals, so delicate and not aggressive at all but people hate them so much. We’re trying to change the mindset.”

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