Spider Expert Weighs in on Endangered Species Debate

Itsy Bitsy Arachnid Puts Brakes on Highway Project

The rare Braken Bat Cave meshweaver spider. Image courtesy of Zara Environmental.

The rare Braken Bat Cave meshweaver spider. Image courtesy of Zara Environmental.

10/22/2012
By Edwin L. Aguirre

The discovery of a rare, endangered spider in a small, underground cave at a highway construction site in San Antonio, Texas, has put the $15 million project on hold indefinitely, until biologists can complete their studies.

The small, eyeless Braken Bat Cave meshweaver (scientific name: Cicurina venii), which is no bigger than a dime, is endemic to the area and has not been seen in more than three decades until now.

Some people might ask: Is a tiny spider really worth stopping a multimillion-dollar construction project that would benefit tens of thousands of commuters daily and bring jobs and economic development to the region?

“It really depends on how much one values unique species,” says biology Asst. Prof. Jessica Garb.

An expert on the molecular evolution and systematic biology of spiders, Garb has been studying spider venom and silk for nearly two decades.

“Unusual ecosystems, like caves, are well-known for harboring unique species and these are highly threatened habitats, so it is likely that by destroying the cave, it may threaten or endanger other species as well,” explains Garb. “It’s probably worth investigating very thoroughly what else is in this cave in addition to this spider species before destroying it, so the value of what will be lost is well understood.”

She says it could be possible to relocate the spider (assuming there are more to be found), but one would have to find a suitable habitat. 

“This also brings up the question of how much manipulation of natural environments is appropriate or desirable,” she notes.

If constructing a bypass route would prove to be not feasible or too costly, are there any other options available?

“I have no idea,” says Garb. “My guess is the spider is probably going to lose this one, but I could be wrong!”

It is possible that the highway project, which started in April, could be scrapped altogether if the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service determines it would threaten the creature’s critical habitat.

This is not the first time wildlife and progress have collided. For example, the construction of the Mount Graham International Observatory in southeastern Arizona in the late 1980s was delayed due to concerns about the adverse impact it would have on the forest habitat of the critically endangered Mount Graham Red Squirrel, which is endemic to the region. Construction of the telescope complex eventually proceeded as planned, and the facility has since been required to monitor the squirrel community near the observatory to determine if its operations are having any negative effects on the rodents’ population.