Conservationists move to protect auto arachnids from spraying campaign
When automaker Mazda announced last month that it was recalling more than 65,000 cars in the United States because venomous spiders were nesting in fuel lines, bemused reporters had some fun. But now the story has taken a more serious turn. Biologists have discovered that the spider is a species previously unknown to science, and conservation groups are asking the automaker and government officials to halt eradication efforts they fear could drive it to extinction.
“It was completely unexpected,” says Ito Takanawa, a spider specialist at Tokyo University who became interested in the spiders. “I got pretty excited when I examined the specimens under the microscope, and the genetic tests confirmed it represents a completely new genus and species.”
The news jolted executives at Mazda and the companies that supply it with the fuel lines implicated in the recall. In recent weeks, the firms have quietly consulted several leading U.S. biologists, and funded “rapid assessments” to find out more about the spiders. The surveys strongly suggest the species is limited to just three remnant populations in and around a few warehouses that were built in the 1960s atop a now rare “crabgrass prairie” in Acht, Indiana.
“This is clearly a specialist species that evolved in these uniquely weedy habitats,” said one of the biologists, who asked not to be identified due to a lucrative secrecy agreement he had signed with the companies.
He decided to speak out anonymously, he said, after executives began planning a “shock and awe” pesticide-spraying campaign against the spiders. The idea has sparked debate within the firms, with some executives arguing that it will expose the companies to legal liability, and ire from influential spider enthusiasts.
“It will be a public relations disaster,” said one executive with direct knowledge of the squabble. “This is a critter right up there with lion cubs and panda bears. And it has more legs. I can just hear the protestors singing ‘itsy-bitsy spider’ outside the dealerships?”
Late yesterday, conservation groups were scrambling to persuade a federal judge to place an injunction against any spraying, and were petitioning the Obama Administration to make an “emergency” declaration protecting the spider under the Endangered Species Act.
They also want the Interior Secretary to designate all 65,000 recalled Mazda 6 sedans as “essential habitat” for the spider. That would mean “no filling up with cheap low-octane, no detailing, no car washes, no shaking out the mats – don’t even think of turning on the wipers,” says Keer-anne Duckling of the Center for Diverse Biology, a nonprofit in Homer, Arizona that is leading the effort. “We need to protect this critical, mobile automotive breeding niche. Although I wish it came in a hatchback.”
Many Mazda owners are now entangled in the web of controversy. “I left my car at the dealership yesterday, and now they’re telling me they don’t know when I’ll get it back,” said Missy Muffett of Tuffet, Tennessee. “Just the other day, one of those spiders sat down beside me. It didn’t even put on its seatbelt.”
Meanwhile, the Japanese spider specialist who set off the ruckus is rushing to publish his discovery in the Annals of Car & Spider. Scientists had initially identified the Mazda spider as the common yellow sac spider (Cheiracanthium inclusum). But Takanawa is asking the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature to dub his new find Zoomzoomium zoomei, after his favorite Mazda ad. He’s also filing several patents and starting a company, after discovering that the spider’s venom contains a molecule that is a promising cancer cure, and its silk makes an excellent dental floss. – April F. Ools | April 1, 2011
Source: Takanawa, I. (2011) Zoomzoomium zoomei: A new species of arachnid from a unique automotive environment. Annals Of Car & Spider. DOI: 10.326/mazda6-67-89
Image © Brad Calkins | Dreamstime.com
(With thanks to Eliza & Liam)