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Venomous, Tree-Dwelling Spiders Surprise Scientists

Funnel Spider

This unidentified funnel-web spider was discovered by scientists in New South Wales, Australia. Stuart Hay / ANU Photography

Most people likely wouldn't react well to being surprised by a venomous spider, but recently, scientists at Booderee National Park in Australia were excited when a highly venomous funnel-web spider appeared without warning.

Many species of funnel-web spiders, named for their funnel-shaped webs, are indigenous to Australia, but only one of these species, the Sydney funnel-web spider, is known to live in Booderee National Park.

Sydney funnel-webs (Atrax robustus) are ground-dwelling spiders with highly venomous bites that, before the development of an anti-venom, posed a serious medical risk to humans. But the spider found along Australia's southern coast by scientists from the Australian National University (ANU) wasn't Atrax robustus.

In fact, it might be a brand-new species of funnel-web spider, said Thomas Wallenius, a biologist at ANU's Research School of Biology and one of the scientists who uncovered the arachnid.

"It's remarkable that we have found this other species in Booderee National Park," Wallenius said in a statement. "It shows we still have a lot to learn about what's out there in the bush."

The nearly 2-inch-long specimen is fairly large for a funnel-web spider, the researchers said. Unlike the Sydney funnel-web, this critter lives inside of fallen trees, not in underground burrows. This suggests that the newfound spider belongs to the genus Hadronyche, which consists of funnel-web spiders that are saproxylic, or dependent on dead or decaying wood for survival.

When Wallenius found the spider, it was burrowed in its "lair," a long web inside of a rotten log.

"They build a silk-lined burrow inside the hollow log, which can be up to 6.6 feet long. She had probably been living in there for 25 to 30 years," Wallenius said.

That's right: Funnel-web spiders aren't just potentially deadly, they also live for an eerily long time.

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The discovery of the (perhaps) previously unknown species of funnel-web spider comes on the heels of another exciting finding by ANU researchers. Last week, an ANU biologist discovered a rare, red-fanged funnel-web spider belonging to the species Atrax sutherlandi in Australia's Tallaganda State Forest. This area, like Booderee National Park, is located in the southeastern state of New South Wales.

ANU ecologist Mark Wong uncovered the red-tinted arachnid while searching for funnel-web spiders under a rotting piece of wood.

"Almost instantly, the spider had rushed out of her silken lair with her legs raised and fangs greeting me with glistening venom," Wong told Live Science in an email interview last week. "Taken aback by her colors, I knew there and then this was something special."

While some members of the A. sutherlandi species have a bit of red tint on their bodies, this was the first time Wong and his fellow researchers had observed a specimen with red fangs.

This is a condensed version of an article that appeared in Live Science. Read the original story here. Follow Elizabeth Palermo @techEpalermo. Follow Live Science @livescience, Facebook & Google+.

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