As It Happens

The world's oldest spider was killed by a parasitic wasp

Number 16, the world's oldest known spider, met its 'gruesome death' at the age of 43 after being stung by a parasitic wasp and devoured by its larvae.

43-year-old Australian trapdoor spider met a 'gruesome, gruesome death' says scientist

This is a female trapdoor spider from a longterm population study in Australia. Another spider from the same study, called Number 16, died at the age of 43. It was the oldest known spider the world. (Submitted by Leanda Mason)
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The world's oldest known spider has died — but not of old age.

Number 16, an Australian female trapdoor spider, was discovered dead in its burrow at the age of 43 after being stung by a parasitic wasp, according to a study published Monday in the journal Pacific Conservation Biology

"[Wasps] are quite brutal in the way they prey on spiders," lead author Leanda Mason told As It Happens host Carol Off. 

"They enter the burrow and then lay an egg either in or on the spider. And then the egg, once it hatches, the larvae will either eat the spider from the inside out or the outside in. 

"It's a gruesome, gruesome death for Number 16."

'They go out with a bang'

Before meeting her violent end, Number 16 lived a long life of solitude inside her burrow, punctuated by regular visits from male suitors, Mason said.

And she outlived all of her lovers.

Leanda Mason is a PhD student from the School of Molecular and Life Sciences at Curtin University in Perth, Australia. (Submitted by Leanda Mason)

That's because male trapdoor spiders die shortly after impregnating females with the sperm they carry around in their "little turkey baster" front appendages, which are called palps, Mason said.

"It's kind of like a fertile handjob," Mason said. "They go out with a bang."

An 'inspidering' legacy 

Before Number 16, a 28-year-old Mexian tarantula living in captivity held the title of oldest known spider. 

"Number 16 was out in the bush, which is even more impressive because we all know that animals living captivity can live longer, perhaps, than those in the wild," Mason said.

Number 16 was originally discovered by Barbara York Main, the University of Western Australia arachnologist known as "the spider lady."

Main launched a longterm population study of trapdoor spiders in the central wheatbelt region of Western Australia in 1973.

Number 16 was part of that study.

Main, 88, now has Alzheimer's, and Mason and her colleagues are working to honour her legacy and carry on her life's work. 

Number 16, the world's oldest spider, spent most of its life inside its burrow. (Submitted by Leanda Mason)

Discovering Number 16's demise without Main by her side was a "miserable" experience, Mason said. 

"I felt like she should be there because it was her study and I felt very sad that she couldn't have seen that," she said.

Mason worked with Main for six years and says the scientist taught her a lot about spiders — and about scientific objectivity.

"I wanted to give Number 16 a 40th birthday present, which for a spider would be a mealworm, but Barbara said that was not OK because it might've biased the study. Which is fair enough," she said. 

"She's inspiring — or inspidering, as I like to say."

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Chris Harbord.

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