Tomb raider: a graveyard spider

KARL Marx, who died of a chest complaint in 1883, was buried on St Patrick’s Day at Highgate Cemetery in North London.

The dozen or so mourners, gathered in a section of the cemetery reserved for religious dissenters and agnostics, included Friedrich Engels, Marx’s principal collaborator.

The great social philosopher is not the only celebrity interred at Highgate. Three years earlier, the novelist, George Eliot, had been laid to rest there. Having rejected Christianity and lived openly ‘in sin’ with a married man, Eliot was denied a place of honour at Westminster Abbey.

“Worldly faces never look so worldly as at a funeral,” Eliot had said. What a pity animals can’t talk. There is a creature living in Highgate whose ancestors may have seen the faces of Eliot’s mourners and those of the author of Das Kapital. During a bat survey, carried out by the London Wildlife Trust in December, a strange black spider was discovered in sealed vaults at the graveyard. The species was identified by expert Edward Milner as Meta bourneti, an orb-web variety never previously found in London. About 30mm in diameter with a trace of brown on its abdomen, this is the rarer of Britain’s two cave spiders. In darkness, it catches insects and woodlice. Some of Highgate’s old walk-in vaults, each holding up to four coffins, date back to the 1830s. Most haven’t been disturbed in decades. The ancestors of the spider colonised the tombs before they were sealed 150 years ago.

Only baby cave spiders would have observed the celebrity funerals; adults shun the light. Even winter nights are not dark enough for them to venture out. Their spiderlings are attracted to light. On hatching from egg cases suspended on silk threads, they leave the dark haunts of their parents. This ensures that the species establishes new colonies, with caves cellars and sewers the locations of choice.

Spiders have always courted ‘celebrity’. Little Miss Muffet may have been Mary Queen of Scots, frightened by spider John Knox, who lectured her on sin and damnation. According to legend, Robert the Bruce, on the run from the troops of Edward 1, hid in a barn. At his lowest ebb and ready to give up the ghost, he noticed a spider dangling on a thread beside him. The little creature swung back and forth, trying to reach another beam. It failed six times, just as Robert had failed in his encounters with Edward, the notorious Hammer of the Scots. It succeeded on the seventh attempt, which Robert took as a sign from God. Thanks to the spider, he renewed his campaign, eventually defeating the English at Bannockburn.

It is fitting, therefore, that today’s world leader should be linked to a spider; a newly discovered species has been named after ‘Barach’ Obama. Researchers at Auburn University Museum of Natural History in Alabama have identified no less than 33 species of trap-door spider, previously unknown to science. One of them has been given the name Aptostichus barachobamai. It’s the 44th president’s second biological honour; a lizard, which became extinct with the dinosaurs 65m years ago, will be known as the ‘obamadon’.

Trap-door spiders are found in almost all Californian habitats, from the sea coast to the mountains. Like Highgate’s cave spider, they are elusive, which explains why so many species have gone unnoticed for so long in this highly populated state. In almost all other respects their lifestyle is different from that of their cave-dwelling cousins.

The warm, sandy soils of the American southwest, rather than the cold, damp vaults of a spooky London cemetery, are the habitat of choice. They don’t spin webs, but use their silk to bind soil sand and vegetation together, forming trapdoor-like structures to cover the entrances of their burrows. Lying in wait behind the door, a spider will sally forth to pounce and inject deadly venom into an unsuspecting victim.

Which creatures should be named after our politicians?

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