It’s always a good thing when a creature thought to be extinct is found alive, even in small numbers. It’s not a good thing when that creature is found in a place whose purpose is to keep a close watch on what’s going on, like a military base, and yet they missed spotting it. That was the case recently when a species of wolf spider known as the Great Fox-Spider (Alopecosa fabrilis) was found on a Ministry of Defence training area in Surrey after spending decades on the ‘Critically Endangered’ list and having not been seen at all for over 20 years, prompting many to decade it extinct in England. Yes, it is also a bad thing for some people when the rediscovered extinct creature is a big, fast spider. Deal with it.
“The rediscovery of the Great Fox-Spider is indeed the most exciting thing to happen in wildlife circles for quite some time. Glad it’s in safe hands."
Nick Baker, TV Presenter & patron of the British Arachnological Society, could not conceal his excitement when told the news by the Surrey Wildlife Trust. Mike Waite of the Surrey Wildlife Trust found the spiders after acting on a hunch that they could still exist on an MoD training site, since these are protected areas of vegetation, which would give the spiders place to hide, but also have bare spots where the spiders could spot, attack and kill their prey, which include beetles, ants and smaller spiders. Using aerial surveillance photos, Waite found a suitable MoD site (not identified for security reasons) and then spent two years searching, watching and waiting. The wait paid off earlier this year when he spotted several males, one female and a number of spiderlings. (Photos here.) As he told The Guardian:
"As soon as my torch fell on it I knew what it was. I was elated. With coronavirus there have been lots of ups and downs this year, and I also turned 60, so it was a good celebration of that. It’s a gorgeous spider, if you’re into that kind of thing.”
If you’re into that sort of thing, you know that Great Fox-Spiders are two inches (5 cm) wide including their legs, a mottled brown color to help them hide, and equipped with eight black eyes which give them 360-degree vision. Great Fox-Spiders are venomous, which is bad news for beetles and ants (it liquefies their internal organs) immobilize their prey but not harmful to humans.
When it comes to dark clouds with silver linings, these MOD sites like the one where the Great Fox-Spider was found hiding have turned from wartime necessities to wildlife preservation areas as Rob Free, Weald Reserves Manager of the Amphibian and Reptile Conservation (ARC) which manages MOD sites, observes:
“The discovery of the Great Fox-Spider shows how amazing the MOD heathland is, not just for spiders, but also for Sand Lizard, Smooth Snake, Dartford Warbler, Nightjar, Silver-studded Blue butterfly and Marsh Clubmoss.”
Now that he knows they exist and has a better idea of where to look, Mike Waite plans to broaden his search for Great Fox-Spiders across England and is confident he’ll find more. With that kind of dedication, perhaps he’s also the guy to put in charge of finds alien big cats, Britain’s Bigfoot and other UK cryptids.
Or your lost socks and keys.